It was a lovely Saturday in the late 1960’s. Jonnie Sue and I with the children were enjoying a leisurely day having lunch somewhere in Marin County, California. The office was trying to reach me to help with a big drug bust. But having come into investigations from the commercial processing side of the agency to work on commercial fraud cases, I didn’t need a radio as much as the other agents who worked the smuggling cases. I had one, but it was of limited range. In Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, a scene was playing out that I was, therefore, not part of. All agents were called out for big busts. We followed the same tactic as the FBI; go with such overwhelming numbers that the people being busted see that resistance is futile. That way, hopefully, no one gets hurt.
A load of drugs had been followed from the Mexican border and was parked at a motel. A small army of Customs agents were watching and waiting for the transfer to the local buyer to be completed in the motel room. Finally word went out from the case agent that the load was about to move; cars with agents converged from every direction on the trailer full of pot, but something went terribly wrong.
Whenever Customs had a big bust like that we always notified the local police department. That way they knew what was going on when they got calls from alarmed citizens about a bunch of guys running around with guns in their hands. We also always offered to have them assign officers to join the team; to help make the “overwhelming numbers.” The Santa Rosa PD did so, and one of their officers, said to have a lot of experience with drug cases, was riding in the front passenger seat of one of our cars. As that car converged with all the others around the load car and agents are piling out yelling at the perpetrators to put their hands up, that they are under arrest, the local police office rolled out of the car, into a crouched position behind a low hedge, gun in hand – and started shooting.
As quick as you can pull a trigger, he hit three agents: one in the right leg, one twice in the left arm, and one in the forehead, with the bullet exiting over his right ear. He might have taken out more, but other agents were screaming at him and about to shoot him when comes to his senses and stops. Why he started shooting, only God knows. It is never part of the plan to converge on suspects and just shoot them. We learn later that his “extensive experience” with drug cases consisted of making small undercover buys at the local high schools. He panicked; he had never been involved in a bust.
The agents shot in the arm and the leg made complete recoveries. The one shot in the head survived and underwent years of therapy, learning to walk and talk all over again. He was eventually able to return to work, but not as an agent. To its credit, the Customs Service gave him a job for life at a small Canadian border crossing.
Even though I was miles from the scene, it enough for Jonnie Sue. Ever since I transferred from commercial processing to investigations, she had had that fear of every agent’s wife – that every day I left for work would be the day I never came home.
I didn’t make any moves to leave investigations, but a few months later I was sent to the agency’s systems analysis training program. I spent six months at Hofstra University in Hempsted, New York, learning statistics and computer technology. That is where I learned I had an aptitude for computer work. Shortly after returning to San Francisco, I was transferred to the Intelligence Division at Custom headquarters, to be part of setting up the first computer-based screening system at all the border crossings and other ports of entry. Thus began my career in computers which has gone through many phases and lasted even unto today.
The three years I spent in investigations in San Francisco were the three most adrenalin-driven of my 34 years in government service. It was an education. I learned an awful lot about people. I’ve always been thankful that I was never shot and even more thankful that I never had to shoot someone.
I’ve been blessed to have had a colorful career that was meaningful. I enjoyed my work, and I feel for those who don’t. I close with the Collect for Vocation in Daily Work (BCP 261).
“Almighty God our heavenly Father, you declare your glory and show forth you handiwork in the heavens and in the earth. Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of him who came among us as one who serves, your son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 11-February-2014.
Oh, Ron, thank you for this and everything you do to make our lives better! love, pat
Thank you, Ron, for this exciting story, and how it made you want to do your best job, regardless of the assignment and location.
I appreciate and empathize with our first responders and their families. Thanks for sharing this reflection.