I couldn’t break her.

Kristi Koons Johnson, Omaha’s newest FBI special agent in charge, the first woman to head the Omaha bureau, was warm and friendly in our interview. But not too revealing, even with softball questions. She’s usually the one in the question-asking role.

Guilty pleasures? The 47-year-old smiled and couldn’t think of any offhand.

Favorite TV shows? See above. Except, Johnson allowed, “The Crown.”

Books? She prefers historical fiction.

Hobbies? Running. “Actually, for fun,” said Johnson, who has run the Omaha-to-Lincoln “Market to Market” relay along with the Lincoln half-marathon and the Des Moines marathon. She also loves to travel and has been to four continents.

During an interview cut short by one ill-fated wrong turn (by me), one trip back to the car to leave my phone (per FBI rule), one trip through security (heels off) and a stark, formal interview room, I tried to learn about the new top federal cop in charge of Nebraska and Iowa.

I learned Johnson was from Michigan, and her mother is a Canadian citizen. I learned that her father died after a heart attack when he was 45. Johnson was just 6 years old.

Her mother went to work as a telephone operator at Ford Motor Co.’s headquarters in Dearborn, and a grandmother pitched in on child care. Johnson and her two older siblings had to grow up fast: They had to be brave, disciplined and independent. They had to work hard.

I learned that Johnson had her eyes on the FBI early, joining at age 26 after finishing college at Michigan State University, where she got to study in Australia, thus catching the travel bug. She graduated from law school at the University of Detroit.

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I learned more about an impressive résumé that includes: Over a decade in Illinois, where Johnson worked on anti-corruption investigations involving organized crime and public officeholders. That included one Rod Blagojevich, the disgraced former governor of Illinois who served from 2003 to 2009, when he was impeached and removed from office.

The Democrat was convicted of federal corruption charges — including trying to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat being vacated when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison, where he remains.

“That was an extremely interesting one,” Johnson said.

During her FBI tenure, Johnson has served as temporary assistant legal attaché abroad in Moscow and Athens. She has taught organized crime investigation tactics in El Salvador. She has worked on FBI policy at the bureau’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.

Johnson calls herself “a policy geek.”

“I love the law,” she said. “So I love the rules.”

She has served in leadership before in the Omaha division office, most recently holding the title chief division counsel, a role that advises on law enforcement and intelligence investigations and supports the bureau’s litigation efforts.

She held that local FBI leadership role during two major Omaha office investigations. One involved a Chinese national who tried to steal hybrid corn seed technology from companies DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto in Iowa as part of a larger trade secret theft conspiracy.

More recently, Johnson was assistant special agent in charge during the investigation of the death of Sydney Loofe, the Lincoln store clerk who was murdered and dismembered. The FBI worked with the Lincoln Police Department and Nebraska State Patrol. In July, one of the two people charged was convicted; the other awaits trial.

Johnson met her husband, Chad, an Iowa native and also an FBI agent based in the Omaha office, while in training in Quantico, Virginia. They met doing pushups. Who did more?

Johnson smiled and demurred.

“It was,” she recalled, “a good challenge.”

The couple owns and lives on a working farm in Iowa.

The FBI remains a boys club among some 13,000 special agents, where just one in five is a woman. Even fewer women are in positions of leadership. Of 56 field offices, just nine are led by women. Johnson succeeds Randall Thysse, who retired.

The FBI’s deputy director, Dave Bowdich, said the agency needs “leaders from all different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.” He said in a statement that he was “confident her experience and expertise will greatly benefit the community.”

Johnson said she has not encountered sexism within the bureau, and she’s never felt any barriers to her own career advancement.

“Any female who might be interested” in an FBI job, she said, “should not be deterred” from seeking one.

If Johnson was reticent about getting too personal, she also was not going to weigh in on the current tumult in the FBI, which has lost two directors in two years, or on the U.S. Department of Justice, which is weighing criminal charges against ousted acting director Andrew McCabe. McCabe had replaced James Comey, who was fired by President Donald Trump.

A local spokesman said those questions should go to the national press office.

I was kidding when I said I couldn’t “break” Johnson. That wasn’t the aim of our interview. And she isn’t a completely closed book. She was gracious and professional and I read her reticence as being important in a line of work that relies more on listening than on talking.

Her focus is on mission: countering violent extremism, including homegrown mass shooters; conducting counterintelligence; busting fraudsters.

Internet-based fraud is a particular threat, costing Nebraskans and Iowans at least $24 million last year. The crime hits vulnerable populations, like the elderly, and the FBI thinks the actual amount lost is much higher than what has been reported.

The local FBI office also continues to work with local, state and federal law enforcement partners on drug and gang issues.

Johnson said it was important to be “100% ready for any critical incident.”

“We care about this community,” she said. “And we are focused on ensuring every member of this community feels the same safety and security that we want our families and friends to feel.”

erin.grace@owh.com, 402-444-1136

Metro columnist

Columnist Erin Grace has covered a variety of beats since she started at The World-Herald in 1998 — from education to City Hall and from the city's western suburbs to its inner-city neighborhoods. Follow her on Twitter @ErinGraceOWH. Phone: 402-444-1136.

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