Printer Friendly

Federal Law Enforcement Fatalities Approach 1,000

In the Line of Duty

By Craig W. Floyd, Chairman & CEO, December 1, 2009

During the early morning hours of October 26, 2009, three special agents for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration were killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.  They had been participating in a counternarcotics operation in support of American and coalition forces when the accident occurred.  Also killed in the crash were seven members of the U.S. military.

The deaths of DEA Special Agents Forrest N. Leamon, 37, Chad L. Michael, 30, and Michael E. Weston, 37, raised the total number of Federal law enforcement fatalities throughout U.S. history to 987, including three others this year. 

U.S. Marshal Robert Forsyth

The first Federal officer to die in our nation’s history was a U.S. Marshal named Robert Forsyth, who was shot and killed in Augusta, Georgia, on January 11, 1794. Another 231 members of the U.S. Marshals Service have gone on to lose their lives in the performance of duty since Marshal Forsyth’s death—more than any other Federal law enforcement agency. 

Among those fatalities was Deputy U.S. Marshal William Francis Degan. In a case that made national news, Marshal Degan was gunned down on August 21, 1992, while on a peaceful surveillance mission in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The man who killed him had broken the law, skipped a court date and escaped with his family, promising armed resistance if the authorities tried to capture him. Marshal Degan was the most decorated member in the history of the U.S. Marshals Service. He is survived by his wife and two two sons. Years later, Bill Degan’s wife said, “Whenever men who spend their lives serving the country are killed in the line of duty, we all lose a piece of ourselves. I lost a bigger piece than others in August of 1992.” 

U.S. Border Patrol Agent James Epling

Over the last decade, 85 Federal law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty, according to records kept by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington, DC. One of those fallen heroes was U.S. Border Patrol Agent James P. Epling. 

On the night of December 16, 2003, Agent Epling and others were chasing a group of Chinese nationals who were attempting to enter the country illegally by sneaking across the Colorado River near the California-Arizona state line. He had already helped to pull one of the Chinese women out of the river to safety when he continued to search for the others. He disappeared, his body not found until three days later. An autopsy concluded that he died from an accidental drowning, and that no foul play was involved. Agent Epling was simply performing a very dangerous mission. Like so many other fallen heroes whose names are engraved on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, he put his own life at great peril in an effort to help others.

Six Federal officers made the ultimate sacrifice in 2008: U.S. Border Patrol Agents Luis Alberto Aguilar and Jarod C. Dittman; Correctional Officer Jose V. Rivera of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; Group Supervisor Thomas J. Byrne of the Drug Enforcement Administration; Officer Kristine M. Fairbanks of the U.S. Forest Service; and Special Agent Samuel S. Hicks of the FBI. Their names were engraved on the Memorial this past spring.

Officer Kristine Fairbanks, U.S. Forest Service

The deadliest year for Federal law enforcement occurred in 1932, when 24 Federal agents were killed during the waning days of Prohibition. Thirteen of them were from the predecessor agency to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Three of the 72 officers killed on September 11, 2001—the deadliest day in law enforcement history—were from the Federal ranks. FBI Special Agent Lennie Hatton and Secret Service Master Special Officer Craig Miller rushed to the World Trade Center to help in the rescue, only to be killed when the towers collapsed. Richard Guadagno, a law enforcement officer with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, was among the heroic passengers of Flight 93 who tried to retake the plane from the terrorist hijackers before it crashed in Pennsylvania.

Over the year, the drug war has taken a terrible toll on Federal officers. Like the three DEA special agents who died in October, Ariel Rios, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was another of its casualties. On December 2, 1982, as part of a Vice Presidential anti-drug task force in South Florida, Agent Rios and his partner, Special Agent Alexander D’Atri, were sent into Miami to negotiate a large undercover cocaine buy from suspected drug traffickers. The idea was to make the buy and then make the arrests.

The meeting began smoothly, but suddenly one of the suspects noticed other agents closing in. When the suspect pulled a gun, Ariel Rios moved forward in an attempt to disarm the man and save his fellow agents. Instead, Ariel Rios was shot in the face.  He died on the scene and his partner, Agent D’Atri was seriously wounded.

In Washington, DC, on the corner of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, there is a government facility that stands as a monument to this fallen law enforcement hero. It is called the “Ariel Rios Federal Building”—a constant reminder of the extraordinary service and sacrifice provided by all Federal officers.

DEA Special Agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena

DEA Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena contributed mightily to our nation’s anti-drug operations—in life as well as in death. For 11-and-a-half years, Agent Camarena served DEA with great distinction.  In 1985, he was assigned to DEA’s Guadalajara Resident Office in Mexico. His job was to identify drug trafficking kingpins; there were clearly some who didn’t appreciate his efforts. On February 7, he left the U.S. consulate and was headed to meet his wife for lunch. He was never seen alive again.

Agent Camarena was abducted that day by four gunmen working for the drug lords he had been chasing down. Weeks went by without any sign of the kidnapped agent. Finally, one month later, Agent Camarena’s horribly beaten body, along with that of a pilot who worked with him, was found in a Mexican field. He had been tortured and brutally murdered.

After his death, Kiki’s wife, Geneva, said that her greatest fear was that her sons would think their father died in a meaningless battle in a losing war against drugs. But Geneva has since put that fear to rest. 

Her thinking began to change when thousands of Federal agents and other law enforcement officers turned out for a memorial mass in her husband’s honor at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. It was an unprecedented display of law enforcement solidarity. It was clear on that day that law enforcement’s resolve to fight and win the drug war was never stronger. They made a pledge that day never to give in to threats and intimidation.  They made a pledge never to forget Kiki Camarena.

This article was originally published in the December 2009 issue American Police Beat, a national law enforcement publication. The article may be reprinted in whole, or part, with the following attribution: "Reprinted with permission of the author and American Police Beat."