ATF Agents Killed in the Line of Duty E-mail
Written by Tom Cramer   

Most of them died violently, as you might expect. They were, after all, going up against exceptionally violent suspects, usually on the suspect's home turf. Records kept by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives Archives show that 185 ATF special agents, or their predecessors from a bygone era, have died in the line of duty. The first name appearing on the list of fatalities is that of William Dorsey, age unknown, who was shot and killed on June 13, 1920. He was executing a search warrant in White County, Georgia.

The last name appearing on the list is that of Kimberly Place. On August 1, 2007, she was returning to her home office in Springfield, Mass., when a car swerved from the oncoming lane and struck her vehicle head-on, killing her instantly. She was 43-years-old.

Kimberly Place was not the first agent to die behind the wheel. The records reveal that   automobile-related incidents claimed a fairly significant number of agents throughout the years; close to 50 in all.  Most of these appear in the records as "killed in an automobile accident while on official duty." But some of the entries provide specifics.

Nine agents, for example, were killed in car crashes while pursuing bootleggers, moonshiners, or rum runners.

Two agents, John O'Toole and William Grubb, died when they were pushed off the running board of a suspect's vehicle in San Francisco. Eleven years separated these incidents, however. O'Toole was killed in in 1922, Grubb in 1933.

One agent died in October 1925, in Minnesota, when he swerved his car to avoid a farmer driving a team of horses. The agent's car skidded, careened into a ditch, and rolled over.  Special Agent Murdock Murray, 50, died several hours later from internal injuries.

Special Agent James Molloy Jr. died in the winter of 1939 after his car skidded off an icy bridge. He had been en route to destroy whiskey stills in Silver Point, Tenn.

The end of the watch came for Special Agent Oscar Hanson on an overcast day in March 1928.  He died when the car he was riding in was struck by a train somewhere in South Dakota. He had been en route to serve a warrant when a snowstorm closed in, blinding the car's driver.

Auto accidents took their toll, but they come in a distant second to the leading cause of death among ATF agents:  bullets. A total of 105 agents have been killed by gunfire, most of them (91) during the murderous 1920s and 1930s. The bloodiest year appears to be 1932, when 13 agents died. Two other years come close: 1922 and 1930, both with 12 fatalities.

A lot of bullets were flying around during this notoriously violent period in American history.

In 1931 Special Agent Curtis Burke was shot and killed by Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd while executing a search warrant in Kansas City, Mo.

Special Agent Richard Jackson died in 1920, about a week before Christmas, when he was shot while transporting prisoners in Tayor County, Georgia.

Special Agent John Waters and a local deputy died together on October 4, 1922, while conducting a moonshine investigation in Dade County, Fla. They were driving down a desolate country road when a group of armed men ambushed them. Waters was still gripping the steering wheel when he was found. He had been hit more then seven times by buckshot. The deputy who died with him had been hit close to 40 times.

Twenty-eight-year-old Ariel Rios was shot and killed on December 2, 1982, while conducting an undercover narcotics investigation in Miami. Special Agent Eddie Benitez was also doing undercover work in Miami when he was gunned down. He died on July 12, 1983.

Nineteen agents died in the line of duty not as the result of shootouts or car crashes, but due to something the records refer to as "other physical stress." The majority of these fatalities were heart attacks, usually suffered during physically grueling events such as an arrest that turned violent. A number of agents (nine) suffered heart attacks during still raids, or while searching for stills.

One agent was attempting to locate a still when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1948. He had been wading through a swamp in Mississippi. Another died in 1935 after he contracted pneumonia while guarding a still seized in Oxford, N.Y.

Airplane crashes claimed the lives of three special agents: Lawrence Davis in 1956 (while searching for illegal distilleries in South Carolina), James Patterson in 1969 (while conducting surveillance in Alabama), and Dale Harbolt in 1976 (while supporting airborne surveillance operations in Oklahoma).

Two special agents lost their lives in explosions. In 1932 Jack Kenford was killed in an accidental explosion that occurred while an illegal distillery was being destroyed in Wisconsin.  Johnny Masengale died in 1992 while attempting to destroy a volatile mixture of explosives.

Two agents died as the result of brutal physical confrontations with suspects. The records state that E.W. Myrick was bludgeoned to death in Pinola, Ala., in 1940 while attempting to make an arrest. Eleven years earlier, in 1929, Richard Sandlands died after boarding a boat on the Detroit River to search for illegal liquor. A struggle took place at some point during the operation and he was thrown overboard. An autopsy later revealed that he died of a broken neck.

One agent was poisoned by Mafia members in 1928 while investigating illegal stills, the records reveal, while a friendly fire incident claimed the life of an agent in 1932 when he was accidentally shot by a local deputy during a moonshine investigation in Russellville, Ky.

The body of another agent has never been found. Ray Sutton disappeared in 1930 while conducting an investigation in Clayton, N.M. His automobile was discovered hidden in a canyon 20 miles from where he was last seen.

One of the oldest agents to die in the service of his country was 64-year-old William Stuart, who was shot and killed in 1954 while participating in a still raid.

Two of the youngest agents to die in the line of duty were Joe Purvis and Robert Williams. Both were 26.

Purvis died in an automobile accident on March 30, 1928, while on official duty in Seattle. Williams was killed by gunfire on February 28, 1993, while attempting to serve an arrest warrant. The other three ATF special agents who died with him that day in Waco, Texas, were Conway LeBleu, Todd McKeehan, and Steven Willis.


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