Welcome to my world...
DEATH OF IMMIGRANTS--Continued
As a twenty two year old college graduate I accepted the job of a Border Patrol Agent completely naïve of the job. Stationed in Uvalde, Texas, some seventy miles from the U.S./Mexican Border, I was stunned at how close life and death is for illegal immigrants crossing through this area.
In Uvalde, two of the many Border Patrol operations conducted include sign cutting and freight train checks. These two duties bring the agents up close and personal to the illegal immigrants' plight and to death which seems to hover over those crossing through the hot, unforgiving area.
It wasn't long before I came face to face with immigrants who paid the ultimate price in attempting to better their fate in life, their own death. South Texas can be desperately hot and humid; causing those who migrate through its brushy country to need to increase their water intake dramatically. While sign-cutting groups it was rare to come across the body of an immigrant who died along the path, but sadly not that rare.
The South Texas area surrounding Uvalde is livestock grazing area and to successfully stock this inhospitable land with livestock, small windmills are haphazardly placed across the terrain to generate the energy to pull water out of their associated wells. Large tanks accompany these windmills with a fresh supply of water being produced.
Literally thousands of groups of illegal immigrants have traversed through this country and they leave markers for the next group, have drawn maps for their successors or have orally passed on the landmarks to watch for and follow. The windmills are integral parts of many of these routes and enable the travelers to walk another day without running out of the most precious cargo, water.
But during the hottest days or when some unforeseen factor affects a group, their travels easily become nightmarish. Over the dozen years I was stationed in Uvalde, our station's personnel came across groups often whose members became lost and dehydrated, with blistered feet and on the verge of heat exhaustion. Once in great while one of their members would be left behind, unable to travel anymore.
Numerous factors contribute to a would-be immigrant's death. One of the most common is drinking water obtained from bacteria infested sources, causing illness which combined with walking for hours on end in the hot and humid Texas terrain can lead to dehydration and heat exhaustion and sometimes death more rapidly than it would in a healthy traveler.
Often the survivors of a group will intentionally come out of the brush looking for Border Patrol Agents to tell them of their friend, relative or sometimes, just traveling companion they left behind.
A sense of dread always overcame me when I heard these stories as the stragglers could easily be dead and sadly, on occasion, this is the case.
Most of us are insulated from death as much as possible, we will see a fatal car accident on the road and look hard just to get a glimpse or stand outside of a violent crime scene yet on the border, death is an almost daily occurrence and sadly, almost accepted as fate by those who are involved.
Freight Trains: A deadly transportation choice.
Freight train checks are one of the most dangerous operations a Border Patrol Agent can perform and sadly many agents are hurt and some killed while performing these checks. The trains are also extremely unforgiving for would-be immigrants. One false move, one slip and sometimes one incorrect belief about these iron horses can lead to serious injury and death.
Many of the illegal immigrants crossing through this area have limited education and believe in superstitions and rumors. One of these beliefs that kills many illegals along the railroad tracks is that rattlesnakes will not cross the tracks. Therefore a would-be immigrant sleeping between the tracks would be safe from rattlesnakes crawling into their camp.
The would-be immigrants often believe they will wake up easily if a train is coming. Sadly, this was not always the case and many died or were severely mutilated because the train was quieter than they hoped. The saddest case of this was just west of my station in Brackettville where half a dozen would-be immigrants didn't awake in time and then were mutilated by the train. The way the Border Patrol could tell how many people were killed was by counting the pairs of blood-stained shoes.
Aliens falling off of trains or getting injured and killed trying to get on them was far too common.
Once, during a freight train check we were performing in Knippa, a small community ten miles east of Uvalde, the helicopter spotted a pair of would-be immigrants. These two knew they were spotted and were prepping to jump, run and hide in an attempt to escape.
The train, slowing to a stop at the Knippa siding, allowing for the two to successfully jump, the first step in their escape plan. The man and woman did just that without a problem. Then the man reached to grab a bag he had tossed off of the train. The bag, too close to the now very slowly moving train, caused him to lean into the path of a heavy metal object sticking from the train which struck him in the head.
I remember this shift well as the would-be immigrant's skull was shattered and he lay on the siding flopping like a fish thrown onto shore from a lake. This subject, along with his female companion, was life-flighted to a San Antonio hospital. We did not follow up on the case as in those days it was a Border Patrol policy that an injured subject's alienage was never probed.
Freight trains have a myriad of places for aliens to hide in order to avoid detection by the sharp eyes of the Border Patrol yet many of these places, such as grain cars, hold invisible and deadly dangers. Grain transported in these cars is often treated with poisons to keep rodents out.
Too many times, we looked into the bowels of the grain cars to find would-be immigrants dead or dying from eating the treated grains and breathing the toxic fumes.
The most shocking part of the many deaths I encountered during my dozen years on the border was the almost nonchalant attitude of the companions of those who had died. It was almost as if they accepted the deaths of their relatives and traveling companions as a sad but unavoidable aspect of crossing the border. This attitude, I hate to admit, was present in many of the law enforcement officers I worked with too as they developed callouses to deal with the many tragic incidents they would encounter.
The Uvalde Station, September 1984 CONTINUED
I faltered somewhat as a trainee but my desire to persevere just like my desire to prove those who said I couldn’t wrong, kept me employed. Just recently, an acquaintance of mine, Felix Reyes said “Bob you may be tough but you’re not mentally tough.” That was truly a shocker. I’ve never been tough but I AM mentally tough and truly couldn’t have made the academy or my first year of probation without that mental toughness. That’s one of my few impressive traits.
I rode with the journeyman agents who, sometimes reluctantly, gave me the benefit of their knowledge and their experience. I wasn’t a good talker nor have I ever been “charismatic” but I am a good listener and learner. That allowed me to get through probation. I trudged forward and made progress, so slowly at times, but I did it.
Each of the journeymen agents had their own style and their own areas of expertise. Kenneth Lamascus and I often went north to Campwood and then to Leakey and then back to Uvalde. Almost ALWAYS we came back with a van full of illegal aliens! Jim Banks was also a northern goer but he was more layed-back and although we never caught as many as with Ken, I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot from each and their wide ranging knowledge assisted me to no end.
Sammie Stewart was the PAIC and one of the two best bosses I have ever had. A strong Texan, he kept the others from fighting and from beating up on us, the three new trainees. He taught me what was most important about being a Border Patrol Agent. He and Charlie Carter would harp on a regular basis “NO Wet is ever worth getting hurt over! Period. End of Story.” Of course our occupation had inherent dangers but the general idea is that you don’t take unnecessary chances. (Yes, everyone called an undocumented alien a “wet” back then. Even the undocumented aliens themselves would say “somos no mas mojados” which mean we are just wets!)
Sammie Stewart would often laugh and comment on an agent or supervisor from another station who took the minor stuff too serious and tell all of us. “That son of a B…. actually takes this job seriously.” Then he would shake his head and laugh. It took years for the true meaning of those comments to become apparent to me. Sammie was very safety conscious, looked out for his troops and never let an alien get the upper hand. He believed the job we did important, but understood that truly no one up the line, all the way to congress, really expected us to make a real difference and sadly few took what we did seriously. What he referred to was generally not to sweat the little stuff, not to be petty and, not to make something into a federal case when it could be handled at a very low level.
We all did a good job though, for our own satisfaction I guess. Sometimes, 25 years later, I will listen to a supervisor or PAIC talk about how important it is to cover the border on a particular night and I have to laugh because I know Sammie would be chuckling at coffee and say. “Well men, I think the Silly Son of a Bitch actually takes this job seriously.” I know many of these supervisors don’t understand what Sammie knew but I also know it will become apparent eventually. They were not so lucky as to have Sammie Stewart as their PAIC.
I called Sammie Stewart after I retired. He was in Round rock, Texas. 20 years later he immediately recognized my voice and said, “Is this Bullet Bob?” Not bad for a man now in his 70s who hasn’t heard from me in 20 years!!! We talked for about 30 minutes and he told me. “Bob. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions in my life but by golly the one thing I am most proud of is that I joined the Border Patrol and made a career out of it.” That says everything. I owe Sammie a lot as I probably wouldn’t have made it through probation if it hadn’t been for him. He stood up for me many a time through my first couple of years and when a couple of the old timers gravitated towards the idea I wasn’t cut out to be a BP Agent, he stood up for me.
Jim Banks, the oldest and a good guy, liked to think of himself as an educated man and let everyone know he was the senior agent in Uvalde. Most of the other old timers scoffed at him and didn’t take him too seriously. Jim liked Public Relations and when the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986(IRCA ’86) was passed he took charge of the public relations aspect of the law. As a people person he eventually moved to Llano to open a three man station there, then retired and ran for Sheriff. I don’t think he won but he had the intestinal fortitude to at least try!
Two decades later, when we started the Border Patrol Station in Northern Pend Oreille County, I heard Barry Woelfel, make the claim that he was the senior agent of the non-supervisors. This reminded me of Jim and like Uvalde, but unlike Jim in Uvalde, Barry hadn’t gained their respect so I waited for the others to ridicule him for this comment. It happened even more quickly than I could have guessed.
Charlie Mac Porter, a slim, mild mannered agent who smoked like a chimney was an excellent tracker and would set off across the hills in pursuit of a group. He sometimes carried a canteen but mostly he walked and impressed everyone as one tough son of a gun. I often worked with Charlie Mac and he would show up out of the South Texas brush following a half dozen or so aliens, soaked in sweat, and puffing on a cigarette. He talked softly and because he was extremely knowledgeable, I strained to hear his words.
Charlie Mac and I once went to Sabinal in a sedan to pick up a group of aliens numbering an even dozen. No one else available to transport, we put eight in the back seat and four in the front seat with Charlie Mac and I. We drove the 20 miles back to the station with these aliens. I was scared stiff but we made it and to this date I have never heard of anyone who put so many aliens in a sedan. Of course this will seem cruel to many and unsafe to most other law enforcement officers but it happened and didn’t surprise anyone of the fellow agents. Charlie Mac eventually became PAIC of the Uvalde Station and passed away a year ago or so from cancer.
Murphy Don Butler was the most colorful agent at the Uvalde Station. I heard him referred to as Fonzy by a couple of the local law enforcement for a leather jacket he had worn when he first arrived in Uvalde. But he received the utmost respect from the other agents at the station. Murphy Don is like the Fonz in many ways, cool and not caring much about what others said. He was a tough son of a gun too. Nobody messed with him. I rode with Murphy Don on my first patrol out in the field. We went down the old Eagle Pass highway at about 30 miles per hour. Murphy Don NEVER drove over 30 when he patrolled. Well, soon we came around a corner and there were three aliens standing about 50 yards out in the brush. They just stood there. I was somewhat surprised at the three alien’s actions, while Murphy Don was out of the vehicle much faster than I thought he could move. I said something stupid to the affect “Should I go out there and get those guys?” Murphy Don just chuckled and sarcastically told me apprehending them was my job. I jumped out of the vehicle, quickly jumped the fence and put all three guys on the ground. Murphy Don stood at the fence and yelled over to me. “Bobbie ya gonna bring them little fellers to the truck or what?” I had been trained how to arrest someone and this wasn’t it. But I would learn.
Murphy Don didn’t take shit off of anyone. As a salty old agent, he definitely had a reputation. One night he had been called out by the local PD. On his way back to his home, in plain clothes and in his own personal car, he saw a man assaulting a woman. He stopped and upon stepping out of his vehicle, the man said something equivalent to “You best get out of here or I’ll give you some of this.” Well Murphy Don didn’t appreciate that kind of talk and quickly pulled his Colt .45 that he had stuck in his waistband and explained to the man, not so nicely, that they were going to await the arrival of the PD…
Murphy Don never told me this story, but I heard it from the Uvalde Police Officer who handled the call…they, of course, were in awe at one of the legends of the Uvalde Border Patrol.
Murphy Don loved to “sand away” at wood and made some of the nicest gun stocks and pistol grips out of exotic Texas hardwoods. I still have a 30.06 with a Murphy Don stock and a Colt .45 with a set of his grips. I will never sell them!
Kenneth Lamascus, one of the five old timers at the Uvalde Station, was often known as “the Indian” by the other agents. He loved to sign-cut (track) and honestly, he was damn good at it. Only a couple of years from retirement when we got there, he didn’t slow in the least. He, along with Charlie Mac Porter and Murphy Don Butler never knew what a can of shoe polish looked like. Back then, we were getting $125 for our uniform allowance in four equal payments of $31.25. The uniforms of many of the old timers showed it. Ken Lamascus’ uniforms should have been used for a poster to increase our uniform allotment. He wore shirts fading to yellow, large salt stains under the arms and in the small of the back. He often wore these for a couple of days straight. The salt stains in huge circles under the arms, almost presented a badge of honor to him, never an embarrassment as it would be too many law enforcement officers. His pants appeared better but often had small rips in them and were seldom ‘laundry fresh’. Some of the other agents would sometimes comment on Ken’s attire but nobody ever accused him of being lazy. He was NEVER lazy.
Ken always carried a walking stick of about 4 feet in length and about an inch or so in girth, which he used to mark sign, to clear paths through brush and to, once in a while, save my butt. I worked with Ken a lot. He took me under his wing and taught me some of what he knew.
Once we were driving up the highway which paralleled a power line. Ken stomped on the brakes and pointed to several deer running out of the woods near the power line. He explained to me there were probably a group of aliens following the power line (in the BP it’s called a High line) who had spooked the deer. We parked our vehicle a few hundred yards ahead of where the deer exited the woods and waited for the aliens. Personally, I remember thinking it to be a waste of time because in Uvalde you saw deer everywhere and many times they were running. But loyal to my journeyman, we waited.
After about fifteen minutes of waiting, I heard voices from under the line. Sure enough here came three aliens. Again Ken’s knowledge impressed me. We let them get to a point almost parallel to us and Ken signaled for me to get them. I came out of the brush and ordered them to sit down. Two guys immediately followed my instructions. The third kept walking towards me. I ordered him again to sit down. He appeared not to understand and said something which I DIDN’T understand and kept walking more or less towards me, not fast but steady. I figured the alien couldn’t understand my novice Spanish so I ordered him again to stop and sit down and again he ignored me.
The next thing I knew, Ken Lamascus, well over 50 years old, came from out of nowhere and smacked the alien on his hand pretty hard with his walking stick. I thought Ken did this to punish the alien for not listening to me and I started to protest. Ken brought his attention back to me and said “Look in his back pocket.” I did and there I discovered a homemade knife half out of its sheath.
The alien had been walking towards me with his hand on his hip and I didn’t even notice it. Ken stayed in the brush to observe how well I handled myself and obviously he found me lacking. The alien would have stabbed me sure as the world if Ken didn’t interfere.
I learned a big lesson from this incident and Ken realized it and never told any of the other guys. Because of my novice understanding of the Border Patrol I almost ended up in a very bad situation. Ken saved my butt then and a few other times during our adventures together. I admired him greatly and hoped someday I would be the tracker he was. I thought it possible early in my career but I could never even compare to this man, dirty shirt, pants, boots and all!
Charlie Carter was one of the minority, regularly polishing his boots while the rest of the guys let them get dirty. Their belief was that if they weren’t dirty, you weren’t working too hard. We ALL wore black cowboy boots them. I don’t think I met an agent for the first couple of years who wore combat boots. But Charlie Carter’s real career was that of a businessman, selling real estate for his real job and then working for the Border Patrol as, more or less, a side job. Educated and definitely in the right circles, Charlie was in a different class from the rest of the agents. Raised in Laredo and absolutely fluent in the Spanish Language and in the Spanish culture, he definitely did not like the number of illegals from Mexico coming into the United States and made his beliefs clear. Charlie expected to be treated with the utmost respect whether by his peers or by the aliens we arrested. He had a cutting tongue that truly felt like a whip when he used it on you. If he felt slighted by an illegal alien he often made them tremble in fear with his tongue lashings and then respect would be earned by fear.
Not surprisingly, I was the recipient of his sharp tongue on more than one occasion.
When I came to Uvalde I was fairly shy and not too overly confident with my Spanish. One of my first encounters with Charlie I recall is as a new trainee trying to process an alien who was very much disrespecting me and causing the other arrestees to laugh at his snide remarks. I didn’t even know the alien was mocking me because my Spanish wasn’t the best. I continued to try to obtain the basic information to process the subject while the subject showed he had little respect for me and continued to mock me. He could tell I was a trainee and quickly began to treat me as one. This was a huge mistake on his part.
Charlie listened to me being mocked and finally interceded. He quickly gave me a verbal beating for my ineptness then turned his attention to the alien who soon regretted his attitude. Charlie gave the subject a tongue lashing that I will not soon forget and which served to mutate the alien’s attitude. After Charlie was through, the alien was meek and answered my questions with the utmost respect!
My Border Patrol Career: In the Line of Duty Deaths
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 stoppinga 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.