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In the line of duty deaths: A border patrol agent reminisces

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I accepted the position of a U.S. Border Patrol Agent and entered on duty less than a year after graduation from WSU. The academy was a true challenge but I graduated and soon found myself in Uvalde, Texas as a BPA(T): the "T" standing for Trainee and I was truly as green as they come.

I arrived at the Uvalde Station in September of 1984. That fall and winter would be eventful for me but also very eye-opening. I would learn about the fragility of life as a law enforcement officer.

South Texas received more than a foot of snow my first winter there and of course it soon melted causing many of the streams to flood. In Sabinal, twenty miles to the east of my station and within my area of operation, a vehicle had become stranded in a swollen stream. The Chief of Police of Sabinal, James Wulf tried to rescue the elderly man and, although he successfully saved the man, he was washed down the stream and drowned.

On January 2, 1985, only two days later and about 40 miles to the south, a Border Patrol Agent Trainee, Manuel Salcido, Jr., was killed. He had Entered On Duty only a couple months before me and was transporting a seized vehicle back to the Del Rio Sector which we all did after apprehending a smuggling load, when he lost control on a bridge and was broadsided by an oncoming vehicle. The Carrizo Springs Station is only a few miles away from our station but I didn't know Mr. Salcido personally.

My career progressed and I became more callous to death as it was somewhat common in South Texas whether involving traffic accidents or aliens dying in the brush or on the trains.

In the early '90s I became friends with a Border Patrol Agent named Jose Nava from the neighboring station of Brackettville.

Mr. Nava was larger than life in many ways and very animated and very, very much alive. He was fairly infamous in the Border Patrol due to an incident in El Paso with another agent. He was nice and almost too chatty. But I liked listening to his war stories and he had plenty to tell.

On January 7, 1995, Joe Nava was trying to catch up with a train on which he had spotted illegal aliens. A deer ran out in front of his vehicle causing his to swerve and roll his vehicle, ejecting Joe and killing him.

This death hit too close to home and truly struck me hard. I was friends with him; I had just sat and chatted with on the side of the road. His death didn't devastate me but it definitely cut deep to my core.

A year later, on January 19, 1996, an agent assigned to the Eagle Pass Station, Jeffrey Barr, answered a sensor on the river and encountered a drug load being packed across the Rio Grande. One subject shot a .22 caliber pistol, which is as small as it gets, and the bullet hit Agent Barr above his bullet-proof vest, richocheting down into his chest and severing an artery near his heart. He died after shooting back and wounding the subject.

The Eagle Pass Border Patrol Station is only an hour south of our station and we had a ton of interaction with the agents stationed there. The murder of Agent Barr devastated me. I decided to transfer to Washington State to get away from the death which was so close there on the Mexican Border.

I transferred to the Pasco, Washington Border Patrol Station in 1997, a two man interior station. I hoped to evade the common place death that so often is associated with the Border Patrol and the Mexican Immigrants. I was wrong.

On October 7, 1999, Washington State Patrol Trooper James Saunders was murdered after stopping a previously deported illegal alien on a routine traffic stop there in the Tri Cities. The alien who murdered Trooper Saunders had been incarcerated at the Franklin County Jail in Pasco which my partner and I routinely checked for aliens illegally within the United States. But we missed this subject and he murdered Trooper Saunders.

His murder and condemnation of the Border Patrol was on the front page of the Tri City Herald for a while. This was my initiation into civil lawsuits as the widow of the trooper sued the Border Patrol and my partner personally. Although I had never met Trooper Saunders, his murder hung over me.

The next death of a subordinate and friend who worked with me on a regular basis convinced me to retire… John Putnam worked out of the Spokane Station. He was a meticulous agent who seemed in good shape and worked hard, often requiring a supervisor to clear up some problem he had encountered. After my transfer to the Metaline Falls Border Patrol Station in 2003, I was often that supervisor!

John often told me that he was going to write a book as soon as he retired. He took meticulous notes on his activities and could go back and see every illegal alien and every incident he had ever been in. I told him to write it while he was still working, but he was adamant that he would write it as soon as he retired. John waited until his mandatory retirement age, retiring on July 31 with high hopes. On August 31 he died of a heart attack. John didn't even get his first retirement check.

Like most law enforcement officers, I have seen my share of death. I was lucky enough to survive my career but the deaths of my peers have taken a toll on me as it does on any law enforcement officer who does the job for any length of time.

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