How high school dropout Russell “Rusty” McGuire dropped back in, became the state’s assistant attorney general and advised the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq
Published in 2007 Virginia Rising Stars magazine
on December 22, 2006
Updated on June 10, 2016
“My rule is 24/7,” says Rusty McGuire, assistant attorney general for the state of Virginia. “Any police officer, attorney, or anyone else needs me, they have my cell phone number. I’ll tell you …”
Before he can finish this thought, his BlackBerry speaks for him: It vibrates. He glances at the screen and shrugs apologetically. “I have to take this one,” he says. During our interview, that BlackBerry would buzz a dozen more times, giving evidence to some portion of that 24/7 availability.
McGuire, 35, is the prosecutorial arm of Virginia’s Computer Crimes Section, which deals with crimes ranging from identity theft to child pornography. Few states have anything comparable to his position, but since AOL and hundreds of high-bandwidth providers are based in Virginia, and more than half of all Internet traffic flows through the state, Virginia’s needs exceed those of other states.
McGuire’s first duty, when he joined the attorney general’s office in 2003, was to put together a case against North Carolina resident Jeremy Jaynes, one of the top 10 spammers in the world. Chances are you once received an e-mail from Jaynes; he pumped out more than 10 million emails per day promising get-rich schemes. Only one in 30,000 responded, but that was enough for him to get rich. By the time McGuire indicted Jaynes, he had conned victims out of $14 million to $24 million. Open-and-shut case, right? Except no one had tried a spam case before, and with no precedent, no eyewitnesses, and complex technical details to explain to the jury, the chances of getting a conviction seemed slim.
“Every case that occurs over the Internet is challenging,” McGuire says. “It’s not a situation where I have a witness saying, He did it. I have yet to have a third party put the defendant at a crime scene at the commission of the crime. I won’t get that in my cases. My cases involve paperwork trails going back. In the spam case, I had millions of e-mails to sift through.”
A framed copy of the U.S. Constitution hangs behind McGuire’s desk, and military mementos fill the shelves. But it’s the area beneath his windowsill that gives him the inspiration. That’s where his young daughter’s crayon artwork is displayed.
“That’s my Matisse collection,” he says with a smile. “My Monets. I like to say my daughter is an impressionist, not an expressionist. That’s her impression of the world. She’s my artiste.”
Turning back from the drawings, McGuire’s face becomes grim. “I’ve seen children my daughter’s age and younger molested, and it’s sick,” he says. “I can’t tell you how scared I am of what goes on, and that’s why I have my 24/7 policy. Anyone who needs me can call, because the risks are too great.”
McGuire’s appearance is appropriately stylish for a lawyer—black suit with an “Attorney General’s Office” lapel pin, expensive loafers—and when he discusses serious matters, his pale-blue eyes are unflinching and steady. At the same time, he has a folksy way of telling stories with “y’alls” dotting his speech. With his buzz-cut red hair, boyish features and pronounced drawl, one can’t help but think of a young kid from Mayberry.
McGuire’s upbringing, however, was nothing like Opie Taylor’s. He comes from a family of poor farmers in Hanover County. His alcoholic father ran off one day and, when McGuire was just 4, his mother abandoned her children by the side of the road. “She just couldn’t handle the stress of raising five kids. The good thing was she dropped us off at the entrance to our grandparents’ apartment complex, so they raised us. Then finally in ’82, my father became sober and came back. He got it all together and has lived an outstanding life ever since.”
Because military service has long been a hallmark of McGuire’s family—his father was an infantryman, his grandfather a sailor in the Navy, and other relatives served as soldiers in World War I and the Civil War—it was no surprise when McGuire dropped out of high school and joined the Army.
“I didn’t have much interest in college,” McGuire remembers. “I was more interested in trying to make a dollar. I joined the National Guard and figured I could come out and be a diesel mechanic. I’d done the research, and International was paying diesel mechanics $20 an hour. In 1988, that was good money.”
McGuire excelled in the military; by 19 he was promoted to sergeant. He went through Air Assault School and the Primary Leadership Development Course. But the National Guard was just part time—his regular paycheck came from working as a laborer for a mason. “I was carrying brick and block all day,” says McGuire. “In the winter, you’ve got to make the mortar. That means sticking your arms in one of those 55-gallon drums in freezing weather to mix the water and sand and cement compound to make the mortar. So I’m sitting out there miserable, and I’m just thinking, ‘Man, there’s got to be a better way.’”
McGuire considered making the Army a career; but if he wanted to be an officer (and he did), that meant college. “I was an average student in high school,” McGuire says. He shakes his head and laughs. “Well, maybe below average. But when I went to [Virginia Military Institute] everything just fell in place. I thought I would be the next George Patton. I really did.”
McGuire rose to the top cadet rank in his junior class—regimental sergeant major—and graduated as a distinguished military graduate. A quick scan of his office shows how important the military was to him. Mounted on the wall behind his desk is the saber he carried at VMI, unit coins line the windowsill and a bronze statuette of a fully rigged paratrooper stands on one of his shelves. He loved the Army but he’d gotten engaged in school. That changed everything.
“The Army’s a great lifestyle,” McGuire says, “but it’s not conducive to having a family. There’s a high divorce rate. I was a product of divorce, and I didn’t want that for my family … so at that point, clearly, law school was the option.”
When on furlough from VMI, McGuire worked for a defense law firm, and his mentor, Bradford Johnson, once told him, “Rusty, I’d love for you to come here, but they need good prosecutors out there. It’s amazing what I can get away with.”
“When he told me that,” McGuire remembers, “it emphasized what I needed to do. I knew I’d miss out on more lucrative jobs, but it’s that sense of public service. It’s the reason we go into the military, or become police officers or firemen.
“Not only that, if you’ve got the mentality of a career military guy, what are you going to do as an attorney? Go to work for a big firm, work 12 hours a day to bill some rich client? That’s not cool. That’s not jumping out of airplanes. But this is. Prosecuting is exciting.”
McGuire completed his requirements at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in only 18 months and began trying cases in Richmond. “I wasn’t [there] long,” he says. “But we have a saying that one year in Richmond is like seven. It’s like dog lives because of the crime. I was doing a murder trial and running a docket while I was still an intern. That’s just the way it works because of the volume.”
Trying so many cases in one city, McGuire often squared off against the same defense lawyers—none more so than Richmond attorney Craig Cooley. “Our profession requires us to be intense advocates for our respective positions,” says Cooley. “That does not require us to be uncivil to each other. And in the course of doing battle the proper way, we each gain a mutual respect and appreciation for the person we’re dealing with. Good advocates don’t go at each other; they go at the other person’s position. And Rusty does that extremely well. Nobody questions his passion for his position. But he does it properly. He fights hard, but he fights fair.”
McGuire used leadership principles he’d learned in the Army and, when the cases were done, he’d conduct an after-action review with Cooley: How was I? What should I have done differently? How can I improve?
“He was always very interested in getting feedback to try to improve his skills,” says Cooley. “His skills have always been strong, though, so whatever we discussed would’ve just been fine-tuning. And these discussions would’ve been give-and-take, too, not just me saying something to him. I make mistakes every day in trial, so I’m glad to get input as well.”
Meanwhile, one weekend every month and two weeks during the summer, he was still with the National Guard, although in 14 years of service he’d never been deployed for fire, flood or search. On Sept. 1, 2001, McGuire, now a first lieutenant, took command of Headquarters Company, 2-116th. Ten days later, his part-time job suddenly became a full-time job.
For the next 10 months McGuire mobilized soldiers and shipped them out for Operation Noble Eagle. Then he and his entire company were shipped to Cuba for six months, where they were charged with defending the coastline for Camp Delta. As U.S. troops prepared to invade Iraq, his deployment in Cuba was extended for another six months. This was no surprise to McGuire—he’d expected it—but when he returned home he received a phone call that caught him off guard: Deputy Attorney General Richard B. Campbell invited him to work for his office.
“When I hired him,” Campbell says, “he didn’t have any background in [computers]. He had prosecuted generally. But the Computer Crimes Unit is a special team and a special unit, and he really educated himself. … That was really impressive to me—that he buckled down and immersed himself, on his own initiative, and with a lot of extra hours, to learn an area of the law that he’s now become, if not an expert, then a specialist in. That began with a lot of selfstarting, which is the hallmark of his character.”
For six months McGuire split time between trying cases and traveling the country for classes on cyber-sleuthing techniques. Dr. John Levine, co-author of Internet for Dummies, was an expert witness in the Jeremy Jaynes spam case. “It was the first criminal case I’d ever been involved in,” says Levine. “By the time I came in, it was pretty close to trial time, and I don’t know how [McGuire] did it, but he figured it all out. I didn’t have to explain anything to him about what was going on. We could get ready to work on the issues and what we were going to present to the judges and the jury.”
“So,” says McGuire, “I’ve got a great career. I’m arguing the biggest case in my career. And then I got called up again!”
This time the Army Reserves wanted to activate McGuire for a year and send him to Iraq. One problem: a rule stating that if a reservist has been mobilized for a year, he can’t be deployed again for two more years. But McGuire felt bad. “I’m not going to shirk my duty,” he says. “If they need me, I’ll be there. So I said, ‘Tell you what. I will waive the two-year rule as soon as the trial is over.’”
The trial wrapped at the end of 2004—Jaynes was sentenced to nine years—and by February 2005 McGuire found himself in Iraq. Initially he was a staff officer with the XVIII Airborne Corps Headquarters, performing a less-thandemanding job. With plenty of downtime, McGuire taught himself to read and write Arabic. His commander took notice and made McGuire the coalition forces liaison to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI).
“I actually lived with the Iraqis during that time,” says McGuire. “I stayed in the National Joint Operations Center throughout the process and advised them on how to be free, safe and fair in their elections. This was totally new to them. One thing they did, they came to the conclusion that soldiers couldn’t vote, that it would be too much for them. Well, I was in the position one day when we were riding around Baghdad to fill out an absentee ballot. What I was trying to show them was that even though I was deployed in a foreign country I was still voting in our election at home.” Ultimately, though McGuire believes he had little to do with it, the IECI did allow its soldiers to vote.
Rooting around in a desk drawer, McGuire searches for one of the ballots from Iraq’s constitutional referendum. He pulls out a sheaf of papers with the IECI symbol and smiles. “What I did in Iraq was one of the most rewarding things I did in my life,” he says.
Now McGuire is back battling cybercriminals. The Army could activate him again in another year, and if it does he’ll heed the call. But until then, he’ll serve as best he can in the Computer Crimes Unit.
“I never know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” McGuire says, “but I’m going to try to stay in prosecuting for the rest of my career. I’ve had lucrative offers, especially since the spam case, to go off and make more money than I could ever imagine. But, you know, money’s not everything. Every day I go home and sleep good knowing I did the right thing.”