In 2015, Billy Reilly disappeared while on a trip to Russia and Ukraine. In the five years leading up to his disappearance, the 28-year-old from Oxford, Michigan had been working part-time as an FBI informant.
Reilly’s family spent years pleading with the U.S. government to help them find their son, but they received little assistance.
It was Wall Street Journal reporter Brett Forrest whose research into Reilly's disappearance eventually led to the discovery that the young man had been murdered while abroad.
Forrest says that Reilly possessed skills that were of “exceptional interest” to the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts. Reilly taught himself Arabic and Russian, and he had a deep interest in global conflict. He infiltrated restricted online chat rooms used by people from “movements related to global jihad,” and those communications eventually drew the FBI’s attention.
Reilly’s value to the FBI, Forrest says, was his ability to blend into those chat rooms and successfully earn the acceptance of the people who used them. He was brought on as part of their Confidential Human Source Program.
“He was one of these guys who could really get his hands around cultures. It wasn’t just knowing facts, and it wasn’t just knowing a language. It was about really identifying with people in different parts of the world,” Forrest explained.
After five years working part-time for the FBI, Reilly announced to his parents that he would be visiting the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine. He told them that he wanted to join humanitarian missions to help Ukrainians there who were affected by the ongoing war with Russia.
Six weeks into his trip, during which time he maintained regular contact with his parents, Reilly stopped responding to their messages. Not long after that, Reilly’s handler from the FBI visited their family home in Oxford, claiming to know nothing of Reilly’s whereabouts.
Forrest says that although Reilly’s parents initially believed that that FBI was invested in determining what happened to their son, they eventually began to suspect that the agency was actually covering up facts related to the case and “thwarting efforts” to find him.
Reilly’s parents even visited Russia themselves to piece together what may have happened to their son, but they found no answers. Then Forrest, with the help of a contact in Russia, was able to match a set of fingerprints from Michigan with one from a Russian database. That’s when they discovered that Reilly had been murdered and buried in Eastern Ukraine.
His parents flew to the region to collect their son’s remains, which they then brought back to Michigan.
Forrest says Reilly’s story begs broader questions about what kind of responsibility the FBI — which expanded from a law enforcement body to an international intelligence organization in the wake of 9/11 — has to its sources.
“The FBI has developed a clear policy of cutting sources loose when things start to have a potential to have some sort of negative blowback on the FBI. And when that happens, you have a situation where Billy Reilly — who’d spent five years giving all of himself, really, to the counterterrorism fight — when he needed the FBI the most, the FBI turned its back on him,” Forrest said. “So you want to ask that question: what recourse do these people and their families have when the FBI behaves that way?”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.