In Harm's Way

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

preparing him for this encounter.

"What saved me was that I was thinking faster than he was from beginning to end," Tiller said. "I just had a feeling that he was lying and that he might be doing me harm. It's what you see in their eyes. We get good training--you can never have enough training--but they can't teach you that."

"We know the most common types of threats that law officers face and we drill the agents to respond appropriately to those," Yamnitz said. "But there are some we can't predict or prepare for. For those we try to prepare them mentally."

Not all the dangers that agents face have to do with people. Conservation agents Chet Vermass and Thomas Davidson were checking duck hunters on the Grand River Arm of Truman Lake when the boat they were riding in bucked into the air after it had struck something under the surface in 60 feet of water.

Vermass, who was driving, was thrown from the boat into frigid water, and Davidson was thrown into the bow. The motor, an older model, continued running at near full throttle in a circle, bouncing over its own wake and threatening to run over Vermass.

"It was a physical challenge to get from the bow to the stern," Davidson says. "I was nearly thrown from the boat several times, before I could get to the motor and kill it. I was so exhausted that I could hardly help Chet back into the boat."

Automatic kill switches on later model outboards now have reduced this type of danger, but agents still have to head out in storms, cold, flooded and rough water or surging rivers to check on anglers, hunters and trappers. They know that poachers sometimes look at foul weather as an opportunity, believing that agents won't be on patrol.

Mike Burton, now district supervisor of the West-Central Region, recalled the time when he was a new agent and he and Allen Breshears went out onto the Osage River during the spring to look for people illegally taking paddlefish.

"It was Allen's idea to stay out all night," Burton said. "The river was already at flood stage, and after we'd motored way upriver somewhere, we had a downpour.

The rain came down so hard and the lightning was so bad, that we decided to go back, but by then there were trees floating all over the river and it was getting dark, so we pulled the boat to the side. We spent a particularly miserable night hunkered down under the walk-through console. Storms, rain and lightning just kept coming without any let-up. It was pretty frightening."

Burton readily came up with a list of 10 times during his career when he felt concern over his personal safety. Most agents have similar lists notched into their memories.

Robb Farr said there have been hundreds of times when he has felt at risk, including manhunts for suspected murderers that Conservation Department agents participate in. He has also been involved in the investigations and arrests of what might be called "hard-boiled poachers," people who continually break game laws and vow to kill anyone who gets in their way.

One gill netter that Farr and other agents arrested at night in an extremely remote area was suspected of killing an illegal fishing partner in Texas and of killing a game ranger in Oklahoma.

The proliferation of methamphetamine labs and marijuana growing operations in remote areas threatens to make the job of being an agent even more dangerous. Marijuana fields are often booby trapped, and methamphetamine manufacturers are desperate to avoid capture. Agents contacting such people have had anhydrous ammonia thrown at them.

"Meth is a real safety issue," Yamnitz said. "People high on meth may not be vulnerable to pepper spray or being hit with a baton. We have to teach other disabling methods to deal with them."

Yamnitz believes it's more dangerous than ever for an agent now, because social norms are changing and people seem less restrained when dealing with law enforcement. "But we're preparing our agents to deal with all the current dangers and to do whatever is necessary to be effective and to survive.

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