SALT LAKE CITY — Eric Barnhart says he just kind of "fell" into his career.
"I was a lifeguard and had long hair and an earring, when a Marine recruiter showed up at my door," said the special agent-in-charge for the FBI's Salt Lake office, which oversees three Western states.
Because of that visit, Barnhart ended up getting an ROTC scholarship and, even though he didn't come from a military or law enforcement family, spent over five years in the U.S. Marines followed by a two-decade career with the FBI. Barnhart calls them the only two "adult jobs" he's had in his lifetime.
Now, after 22 years with the FBI — the past 3 1/2 as head of Salt Lake office — Barnhart is retiring and going into the private sector.
"It was probably one of the hardest decisions I've made. These last 3 1/2 years have been the best job I've ever had my life, bar none," Barnhart said.
Barnhart turned 50 in June and became eligible for retirement. His official last day on the job will be Dec. 31, though he is expected to use vacation and other acquired time off leading up to the end of the month.
"An opportunity came up. It was quicker than I thought it would be," he said.
Barnhart has accepted a position with Caterpillar Inc. to become the equipment manufacturing company's executive director of global investigations. He and his family will be moving to Illinois.
For the Wisconsin born-and-raised Barnhart (who also graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in political science), it's a chance for him to return to the Midwest. But Barnhart will leave with fond memories from his time in the western United States where he has spent the majority of his career.
After the Marines, Barnhart started his FBI career in Portland, Oregon. He moved his way up into the organized crime and drug squad, and after responding one day to a double homicide on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, he received a promotion and transfer to Bend, Oregon. Barnhart has also worked in the FBI's office in Billings, Montana.
For three months he worked for former FBI director Robert Mueller, a man Barnhart called "an American hero" who has spent a lifetime dedicated to public service.
"I couldn't have higher regard for him," he said.
Barnhart worked as part of the transition team between Mueller and incoming FBI director James Comey, who took over in 2013. He then worked in Comey's office for a little under two years when the opportunity to move to Utah came up.
Salt Lake was the No. 1 choice for the next step in his career, Barnhart said.
Over the years, he said there isn't one particular case that stands out. Rather, it's the unique relationship and cooperation between his office and state and local law enforcement agencies that Barnhart will remember most.
"Folks here have never failed to answer the bell, regardless of time day, and always exceed my expectations," he said. "I've been a lot of places in this career, and it's not always so. We don't have the turf battles and the pettiness."
Nationally, Barnhart recognizes that the FBI is going through challenging times and has faced recent criticism. But he said the office has been around for more than 100 years and will weather its current storm — and "come out better than before, just like we always have."
"We have the toughest cases. We're in the spotlight. We're in the arena. And naturally, criticism comes with it. Look, there's some very legitimate criticisms of the organization and a very few number of individuals. It hurts when it happens," he said.
Barnhart said the FBI will never win any popularity contests. But he believes by owning up to mistakes and giving the public a broader perspective of what the FBI does, the organization will win people over one at a time.2 comments on this story
Locally, Barnhart said he leaves with cases that are still being worked on, which he expects he will end up reading about in the newspaper in the future once they are concluded and become public.
"There's no perfect time to go. You're always going to feel like there's unfinished business," he said. "You almost can't dwell on what you didn't get to. A lot of stuff that I wanted to see happen, has happened in 3 1/2 years. But there's no perfect time. There's no time where you're like, 'got everything done. Projects are all done. I can go.' That time never exists."