An Ivy League Ph.D. and Corporate Executive to Prisoner and Back
Updated: Jul 15
Imagine this: You head to work one day with a tape recorder taped to your chest, another hidden in your briefcase, and a third tucked away in a plain notebook. Your heart races as you think about secretly recording conversations with your bosses, your coworkers, and even your friends. Now think about doing this every single day for three years straight.
This was my life from 1992 to 1995. I was working undercover for the FBI to expose the biggest price-fixing scandal in the history of the United States. I was a top executive at a Fortune 500 company, but I also was the highest-ranking executive ever to become a whistleblower, calling out the wrongdoings I saw.
I was a whistleblower for Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). ADM was the 56th largest company on the Fortune 500 list and was a massive player in the food additive industry worldwide. They made more than $70 billion yearly and had over 30,000 employees. You'd find ADM's ingredients in everyday foods and drinks, like Kellogg's cereals, Kraft Foods, Tyson Foods, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi.
I started working at ADM in 1989 when I was just 32 years old. They made me president of the bio-products division, making me the youngest person to ever lead a division in the company's history. Within three years, I climbed the ladder even higher and became a corporate vice president and officer. The experts at Fortune Magazine even thought I was on track to become the next Chief Operating Officer and President of ADM once the current president, who was 70, retired.
Being a top executive at one of America's biggest companies came with amazing benefits. Between my salary and my stock options, I was making millions every year. I could use the company's jets whenever I wanted. I had a beautiful wife and three kids, and we lived in a mansion and sent our kids to the best private schools.
From the outside, it looked like I had everything anyone could want. I was living the American Dream—the best of what the world could give. People would drive by our house and say, "Mark Whitacre has it all!" But what they didn't know was that, inside, I felt like there was something huge missing from my life.
The reason I decided to expose ADM came down to my wife, Ginger. We both grew up in small towns in Ohio. My parents still live in the house where I was raised. I met Ginger in middle school when we were both in the band. We started dating in high school, and we were even crowned homecoming queen and king in 1975, my senior year. We've been inseparable ever since, and recently, we celebrated our forty-third wedding anniversary.
In 1992, Ginger started noticing changes in me. I had been involved in price-fixing at the company for about seven months, although the company had been doing it for over ten years before I joined. This job took over my life, and she could tell I wasn't happy. I was always wanting more, no matter how much money I made.
Ginger, however, had something to lean on—her faith. She had a strong relationship with Christ since she was thirteen. In contrast, I would go to church, but I didn't really feel connected. If you asked me in 1992 if I was a Christian, I'd say, "Yes, I go to church almost every Sunday."
On November 5, 1992, Ginger decided to dig a little deeper into our conversations. She felt something was bothering me and started asking questions: What's happening at work? Why are you so intense? Why do you seem so unhappy? She encouraged me to open up, and that's when I confessed to the illegal activities at ADM. I explained how we were colluding with our competitors to fix the prices of key ingredients. We had essentially formed an international cartel, stealing billions from our customers, which then passed the cost onto everyday people buying groceries. I had been part of this federal crime for the past seven months, learning how to maximize profits in the division I was overseeing.
I should clarify that ADM isn't a bad company. Most of the 30,000 employees go to work each day and do the right thing. But in the early '90s, some top executives, including me, were doing illegal things, staining both the company and our hometown, Decatur, Illinois, with our greed.
When Ginger heard what I had done, she said I needed to go to the FBI. I warned her that I could go to jail and we might lose everything. But she said she'd rather be homeless than live in a home bought with stolen money. She insisted, "Either you go to the FBI, or I will." And I believed her.
Within an hour, I was confessing to an FBI agent. But it was Ginger who was the real whistleblower. If it hadn't been for a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom with three young kids, the biggest price-fixing scandal in U.S. history might never have been exposed.
What would you do in this situation? Would you turn a blind eye and continue moving up the corporate ladder, enjoying the perks and financial security? Or would you do what my wife insisted I do—admit to being part of a major crime and risk losing everything?
After graduating high school in 1975, I went to Ohio State University (OSU). In my second year there, I got into a special honors program that allowed me to start working on my Master's Degree early. I finished my Master's Degree at OSU with honors in 1979 and got a full scholarship to Cornell University, an Ivy League school known for its strong science programs. I studied nutritional biochemistry, with minors in biochemistry and international nutrition, and got my Ph.D. in May 1983. But getting a Ph.D. from Cornell wasn't enough for me—I went on to get several more graduate degrees.
After I finished at Cornell, when I was in my mid-20s, I thought, "Wow, I'm a really smart guy. I can make millions of dollars with this brain." I was super ambitious and couldn't wait to dive into the world of big business.
I took a job at Ralston Purina in St. Louis, Missouri, and within two years, I got an offer from a huge company called Degussa Chemicals (which is now called Evonik) that I couldn't turn down. After another two years, they moved me to their global headquarters near Frankfurt, Germany, so I could get some international experience. In 1989, while working on a joint venture with ADM, I became friends with some of the top executives who eventually offered me a new job. Within a few years, I was lined up to become the COO and president of ADM. That was the plan until everything changed.
After admitting to my part in this global price-fixing scam, I secretly agreed to work for the FBI. This double life was incredibly stressful. For instance, during the day, I'd act like a dedicated executive, helping to build the company. But in the evenings, I'd be working to bring it down. At 6 a.m., I'd meet with the FBI. They'd shave my chest to attach tiny microphones and check the batteries in the tape recorders hidden in my briefcase and a special FBI notebook. Throughout the day, I'd record conversations with my colleagues. Then, from 6 p.m. to midnight, I'd meet the FBI at different hotels to hand over the tapes and go through what felt like never-ending debriefings.
The price-fixing meetings weren't just at ADM's headquarters in Decatur, Illinois. They were happening all over the world: in places like Paris, Mexico City, Vancouver, Hong Kong, and Zurich, and I recorded all of them with three audio devices. But the prosecutors wanted the jury not just to hear the evidence, they wanted them to see this illegal plan in action. That's where a special FBI lamp came in.
This lamp looked like something you'd pick up at a garage sale. It was used to record video footage. I'd tell the FBI when and where the meetings were happening, and they'd make sure the green lamp was positioned perfectly in the room before the meeting started. It's funny, all of us involved were men. If a woman had been there, she would've noticed right away that this green lamp didn't fit with the fancy decor at a Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, a Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong, or a Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. And she would've noticed this odd green lamp seemed to be following us everywhere. But greed can make you blind. We had guys stealing billions of dollars, and they didn't see what was happening right under their noses.
For a meeting in Tokyo, the FBI was worried that the Japanese government might try to protect Japanese companies if they knew about the investigation. Several of the companies we were conspiring with were based in Japan. So for that meeting, I had a tiny Radio Shack tape recorder that used 90-minute micro-cassettes. Our meetings usually lasted at least three hours, so every 45 minutes, I'd check my watch and excuse myself to the restroom to flip the tape. I was the only one going to the restroom like clockwork, and no one even noticed!
After two years of secretly recording conversations for the FBI, I was burnt out. I was so mixed up, I couldn't tell if I worked for the FBI or ADM. I was losing control, almost like I was having a nervous breakdown. One night during a terrible thunderstorm, I found myself out on our driveway at 3:00 a.m., trying to clear leaves with a leaf blower while still in my shirt and tie. Ginger heard the noise from our bedroom and came outside under an umbrella.
She shouted over the noise of the blower, "You need to come back inside. You need to come back to your family. But more than anything, you need God in your life."
"Who needs God?" I shot back. "I'm about to become the president of the 56th largest company in America."
She looked angrier than I'd ever seen her. As she's said in TV interviews over the years, "Divorce was never an option, but murder was."
She told me, "I'm proud that you're working with the FBI, but you're not going to be president of ADM. You need to understand that. Once they find out you're the informant, you won't be able to stay at ADM. You're bringing down the top three executives; they might go to jail. You're going to be fired when they find out what you've done. You need to accept that."
She left me standing alone in the driveway, and I knew she was right. There was no way I could stay at ADM. But the thought of losing my position and income was unthinkable. I was hooked on success. I was obsessed with material wealth. I started thinking about how to protect myself.
I decided to steal what would have been my severance pay, $9.5 million. But what if ADM found out? If they accused me, I thought I had the perfect defense. How can you charge me with stealing millions when you're stealing billions? And you're making me be part of this illegal price-fixing scheme! I felt invincible, so I decided to submit several fake invoices to ADM from companies that I owned, until they paid me $9.5 million. I didn't tell anyone, not even Ginger. I thought I was protecting myself, but really I was just isolating myself and causing more damage. "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end..." Looking back, I should've talked to someone.
In exchange for secretly recording conversations, I had been given complete immunity from any criminal charges as long as I didn't break any laws the FBI wasn't already aware of. But when ADM found out I was the informant in June 1995, they quickly told the FBI and the media that I had stolen $9.5 million. My cover was blown. I lost my immunity deal.
The agents I'd worked with for almost three years could have turned their backs on me, but instead, they continued to support me. They helped me find a great lawyer and worked behind the scenes to help me negotiate a plea deal. They argued to the prosecutors that:
I was the highest-ranking executive in U.S. history to become a whistleblower. If they prosecuted me, how would the FBI ever get another whistleblower to come forward?
I made some really bad choices but made them when I wasn't in a good mental state.
FBI agents who go undercover are trained for years to do that kind of work and they get regular mental health support to help them handle leading a double life. I didn't get any training or support.
After hearing these arguments from the agents and my lawyer, the prosecutors agreed to a plea deal of three years. But there was more to the deal. There would be a sentencing hearing where the agents would make the same arguments to the judge that they made to the prosecutors. My lawyer thought I would end up with a six-month prison sentence. He called Ginger and me into his office in Chicago to discuss what he called "the deal of a lifetime." But I shot myself in the foot. I turned down the deal and fired my lawyer. I hired new lawyers and started preparing for a trial.
A year later, I ended up with a 10½ year sentence.
I should have listened to my Chicago lawyer. I should have been more humble. The choices I made when I was only thinking about myself were coming back to bite me. How was I going to survive ten years in prison? How would my family make it without me? I was starting to lose all hope.
In the federal prison system, there's no parole. If you behave well, you might get your sentence reduced by 15%, but parole was eliminated in the mid-1980s. This meant I was looking at serving eight years and eight months in federal prison.
What scared me the most was how this would affect my family. How would they manage without me? Would they even want to keep going without me? I had already missed so much of their lives. I was going to prison at 41 and wouldn't be released until I was 49. When I was secretly recording conversations for the FBI, I was up early in the morning and late at night, on top of my day job at ADM. I hardly ever saw my kids. Alex was twelve when I went to prison. Tanya was just starting college, and Bill was only four months away from finishing high school. My own selfishness and arrogance had stolen away the stability and security I should have provided for my family.
Almost all the people in prison who were married and serving sentences of five years or more ended up divorced. I didn't see how my marriage could survive this. How would they support themselves? Ginger hadn't worked in over ten years, and we had lost everything in the ADM case: our house, cars, stocks, and savings. I wondered if I would ever find work again as a convicted felon. And on top of all these worries about my family, I also wondered if the four FBI agents would ever forgive me for lying to them?
In the months leading up to my prison sentence, I was emotionally and spiritually drained. I didn't want to live and wasn't even sure if I deserved to. I knew that my life insurance policy would pay out if I took my own life, so in desperation, I tried to kill myself twice. These attempts landed me in the hospital and I spiraled deeper into depression. Eventually, I was diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder.
At the time, I was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, serving as the CEO of a different biotech company, not ADM. A guy named Ian Howes, who was the CFO in the same industry, had heard about my situation and my attempts to end my life. He was part of a group for businessmen called Christian Business Men's Connection (CBMC). In September of 1997, Ian reached out to me and became my friend. He genuinely cared about me and listened to my story without any judgment. There was something special about Ian that I hadn't seen in any of my other friends.
He stuck around when all my other friends had left me. We would meet up, read the Bible, and use a unique study program called Operation Timothy. He made me think about the teachings of Christ – who He was, what He did, and why it mattered. Ian also made me consider my purpose in life, giving me a flicker of hope during those desperate times. He spent time with me each week, planting seeds of faith that would eventually lead me to Christ.
During the time I was learning from Ian in 1997, I also did a lot of research on what other respected scientists had to say about God. As a Ph.D. scientist, the opinions of other scientists mattered to me. I was deeply moved when I discovered that Albert Einstein believed that God created the universe and man, and that he thought the big bang theory was impossible. Sir Isaac Newton, another scientist I greatly admired, also saw God as the master creator, whose existence couldn't be denied given the grandeur of all creation.
On March 4, 1998, I entered federal prison in Springfield, Missouri with the inmate number 07543-424. I was later moved to a prison in Yazoo, Mississippi. Chuck Colson, who used to work for President Nixon and was the founder of Prison Fellowship, reached out to me and came to visit. Chuck, along with Ian Howes, became my mentors, sharing the same biblical truths that Ian had taught me. They said that God loved me and could forgive me, no matter what mistakes I had made. At first, I thought my mistakes were too big for God to forgive. But they explained how God sent His only Son, Jesus, to live on earth and die on the Cross to pay for my sins, so that I could be made right with God. I learned from the Bible that I could have eternal life by believing in what Jesus accomplished on the cross and that He was raised from the dead.
That's when I got it! For the first time, I understood that being a Christian isn't about going to church every Sunday or what I did or didn't do, but about having a relationship with God. In June 1998, in a prison cell, I knelt down and confessed to God that I am a sinner, and I asked Him to forgive me. I told God that I fully understood that His son, Jesus, came to earth to die on a cross for my sins. That day, June 4, 1998, was the first time in my life that I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I finally felt peace.
Even though I was just three months into a ten-year sentence, I felt content for the first time in my life. The emptiness in my life that I had tried to fill with money, big houses, cars, and professional success was finally satisfied. Before going to prison, I thought it would be the end of my life, but it turned out to be the start of my life. I trusted God to take care of things and put my burdens on His shoulders. Unlike the first forty-one years of my life, from that day forward, I would I would strive to know Him, love Him, and serve Him.
I gave my life to Christ Jesus and started an amazing journey. Obviously, I was still suffering the consequences of my actions, but right away God took away the depression and thoughts of suicide and replaced it with peace, contentment, and hope. He followed that with miracles.
First, God preserved my marriage. You will recall that 99% of those incarcerated five years or longer get divorced. I was incarcerated almost double that time, and not only did my marriage survive, it thrived. Over the course of my sentence, I was relocated 3 times, and each time my wife and children moved near the prison and visited me every week. The visiting hours in federal prison camps are from 5 pm to 8 pm on Friday evenings and 8 am to 3 pm on Saturday and Sundays. Basically 17 hours per weekend. My family came every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and holiday for nine years.
Ginger never missed. Another author who wrote a book about my case calculated the days Ginger spent visiting me: three years and
eight months! Because of her faith in Jesus Christ, her love for me never wavered. Ginger has put a whole new meaning to "Stand by your man." No one can tell me it is not a miracle that I am still married.
Second, God provided for my family while I was in prison. In August of 1998, Ken Adams, an attorney from a prestigious a law firm in Washington, D.C., contacted Ginger to inform her that companies such as Tyson Foods, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Kraft, who had won hundreds of millions of dollars in class action suits against ADM, wanted to assist our family while I was in prison.
They set up a trust fund that allowed Ginger to go back to college to finish her degree. She became an elementary school teacher and was teacher of the year in 2007 in Pensacola, Florida. The trust fund also assisted with our children's college education, house payments and other bills. So the victims of a fraud case assisted the perpetrator's family.
Thirdly, God gave me another job. Even with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, I would be coming out of prison a convicted felon and forty-nine years old. At 8 a.m. on December 21, 2006, I was released from prison. On the following day, I was hired by Paul Willis, CEO of Cypress Systems, Inc. Paul Willis is a Christian CEO on the Advisory Board of the Fresno CBMC, and Cypress is a biotech company dedicated to cancer research. For me to be hired back into this industry so quickly (and to be hired into a company with a Christian CEO) was indeed another one of God's miracles. During the past few years, I have also become very active in CBMC (Christian Business Mens Connection), as a Marketplace Ambassador, presenting my testimony at Annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast events around the country. In addition, I present my story of redemption and second chances at other business events around the country.
Fourthly, how would those four FBI agents ever forgive me? Although I betrayed FBI agents and stole $9.5 million while under the immunity agreement, the government was able to successfully prosecute their case against the top executives of ADM. Shortly after I entered prison, some of the FBI agents contacted me and some even visited me in prison. They have become some of my strongest supporters. Today, all four of these FBI agents and a former prosecutor have written letters to the White House in support of a full presidential pardon. Over the past few years, I have often conducted
training sessions for the FBI on going undercover, and in 2011 was the guest speaker at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. And during the past couple years, the FBI agents have conducted numerous TV and other media interviews including a 2010 Discovery Channel documentary
where they "tout Mark Whitacre publicly as a national hero for his substantial assistance with one of the most important white- collar cases in history." These FBI interviews are archived on website: www.markwhitacre.com. I am certainly no hero, but I appreciate the FBI's support and count it a miracle.
Of course, a presidential pardon would be welcome. I have paid my debt to society for my crimes at ADM: the 9-year sentence for my family and me, the humiliation, the loss of all our material wealth, comfort and financial security. But those nine years did not pay for sins, for my rebellion against God. In other words, the punishment given to me by the U.S. Government did not deal with the fact that I am a sinner who needs God's forgiveness. The Bible says, "It's your sins that have cut you off from God" (Isaiah 5:2a NLT). Because of God's grace and the price that Christ paid for my sins, I have been eternally pardoned. A signed pardon by a U.S. President would pale in comparison.
God has handled my burdens. He has changed my life. I was once obsessed with climbing the corporate ladder and possessed by greed, and now I find great joy in serving others. While in prison, I taught inmates how to read, conducted GED classes and helped several inmates write letters to their family members. I was also able to
mentor numerous men using CBMC's Operation Timothy.
I can truly say that I was happier in prison making $20 per month helping others, than in the corporate world earning 7-figures for myself. But, understand that I live each day with the collateral consequences of my crimes – especially knowing that I put my family through nine years of hell.
Although you may not have deceived the FBI or stolen millions, you are a sinner and your sins separate you from God just as my sins separated me from Him. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Good works, money, philosophy, or religion will not make you good enough to have a relationship with God or go to heaven. God is perfect, and we have to be perfect or without sin to get into heaven.
Let me give you an analogy from the biotech industry of how we can never achieve perfection. At ADM, one of the main products in our division was lysine. Lysine is an amino acid used as a food and feed additive. Our competitors' lysine had 99% purity. We had an advantage of 99.5% purity and enjoyed the reputation of having the best lysine in the industry. We tried for even higher purity, but no matter what we did, it was impossible to reach 100% purity. In the same way, it is impossible for us to attain the perfection that God requires.
But God provided the solution. Jesus Christ bridged the separation between mankind and God when He died on the cross and was raised from the dead. "God is on one side and all the people on the other side, and Jesus Christ, Himself man, is between them to bring them together" (I Timothy 2:5 TLB). Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father [God], except through me" (John 14:6).
I was living the best life this world has to offer, and I now know that it was not life. On that day in 1998 in my prison cell when I asked for forgiveness and accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, I experienced redemption and started living. It says in 1 John 5:11-12 (NLT), "And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God's Son does not have life."
Mark now serves as the Vice President of Culture & Care at Coca-Cola Consolidated.
Mark Whitacre's story is a vivid reminder that we should never underestimate God's ability to rescue, restore, and redeem. Everyone deserves a second chance, an opportunity to learn, grow, and give back. And often, it is in the darkest times that we find the brightest light and the deepest transformations.
We are thankful for what God has done in Mark's life and that he is avid supporter of JUMPSTART's mission.