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Brookings teen requested FBI info on local and national history- now available at SDSU

Acquired FBI documents from Hoover era available to the public at SDSU Briggs Library
Published: Feb. 15, 2022 at 3:29 PM CST
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BROOKINGS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - A curious teenager contacted the FBI and received a flood of information on local and national history.

A Brookings native, Matt Cecil, was a teenager working at the Ram Pub downtown when he discovered the building was previously the Security National Bank. “I saw a bunch of news clippings on the wall about a bank robbery that happened in that bank, back in 1938. And that just sort of captured my imagination,” said Cecil.

Cecil decided to write the FBI requesting all their files on the robbery through the freedom of information act, or FOIA. He forgot about it until two years later, “5000 pages came in a huge box on my doorstep. And that was really the start of it,” said Cecil.

He learned of the depression-era outlaw couple, Ben and Stella Dickson, robbing banks in Elkton and Brookings. Cecil decided to write a book titled The Ballad of Ben and Stella, using the information he received from the FBI. In the book, Cecil details the couples’ crime spree, “They tracked him down and shot Ben Dickson in the back as he tried to run away. And Stella ended up going to prison.”

The FBI papers Cecil received made him eager to investigate more, so he continued making requests for information, especially from the Hoover era.

Those documents are now available for everyone to see at the Briggs Library at SDSU. “900,000 documents... it’s just incredible,” said the archivist and special collections librarian at SDSU, Michelle Christian.

“On nearly every page, there’s some sort of redaction, but it’s interesting what they did leave behind,” said Christian. Once you start looking through the boxes, it’s hard to stop. There’s an Ed Sullivan file, JFK assassination papers, and kidnapping plots on JFK junior.

Cecil finds the handwritten notes from former FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover especially intriguing. “He’d call somebody or rat or liar or whatever in those files,” said Cecil.

They pulled the FBI file on beloved South Dakotan Joe Foss. The three pages were all favorable. Foss was described as “a great admirer of the director and a strong supporter of the Bureau.”

Cecil is currently a professor at Northern Kentucky University and has written three books based on his findings. Cecil says he has no plans to stop because he sees it as a public service. “I think that’s part of being a thriving and healthy democracy is understanding what your government is doing,” said Cecil.

The FBI now provides digital copies, which will also be forwarded to the library for anyone to see.

To see the documents, you can stop by anytime the library is open. If you call ahead, they will pull the documents you’d like to review and have them ready when you arrive. An index of the names and topics collected can also be found online. https://www.sdstate.edu/sdsu-archives-and-special-collections/matt-cecil-papers

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