In Harm's Way

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Wave to a conservation agent, and he or she will wave back. Stop to talk about wildlife or fishing or land management, and the agent will fill your brain with information gleaned from spending days in the field contacting other anglers, hunters and landowners.

Conservation agents check licenses, talk to schoolchildren, occasionally write tickets for illegal fishing methods. They patrol lakes, rivers and streams, sometimes floating in a canoe, other times hidden in the brush. Some of their job activities may seem fun, others monotonous.

Always lurking, for the agent, however, is the threat of too much excitement. Dangerous situations crop up suddenly and almost always without warning. Any call or contact, no matter how routine it may seem, could put a conservation agent in harm's way.

Harrison County Conservation Agent Bill Lenhart, for example, was returning home after handling a call about a sick raccoon when he heard an emergency radio dispatch about a 12-year-old boy falling through the ice in a rural pond. He stopped at his home to pick up a lifesaving package of a 30-foot rope, a long pole and a lifejacket he keeps at the ready in his garage and headed to the pond.

After cutting a hole in a fence to allow his truck and other emergency vehicles to get near the pond, Lenhart put on a lifejacket, crawled out onto the ice and tried to reach the boy with a long pole. He came up short, however. When he tried another approach, he fell through the ice about 6 feet away from the boy.

Lenhart chose to stay in the numbing water about five minutes, rather than allowing himself to be pulled in with the rope around his waist by the gathering crowd, so he could keep the frightened child's spirits up, while waiting for the fire department to arrive with a ladder.

Lenhart then exited the water and rode and slid the ladder over the ice until he was able to reach out and lift the boy out by his collar. The people on shore pulled the ladder like a sled back to land.

"It was cold, but the adrenalin was running like it would in any other emergency situation," Lenhart said. "The boy was lucky. He'd been in the water a full 30 minutes. If we hadn't had that rope and the other equipment ready, we'd have been stuck. But you have to be ready. You never know when that call is going to come."

Conservation agents receive 1,000 hours of training before they are certified. The minimum for a Missouri peace officer is 470 hours. Only the Highway Patrol and Water Patrol receive as much training. Much of conservation agent training involves role playing. "We put them through the paces in controlled situations to get them used to responding to emergencies," says Larry Yamnitz, director of the agent training academy.

After graduation, agents have to attend an additional 40 hours of training each year in human behavior, defensive tactics and firearms. In addition, agents review reports of dangerous situations other agents have encountered so that they can learn through an "If that happens to me, what should I do?" exercise.

Although they serve as goodwill ambassadors, conservation agents are first and foremost law enforcement officers. As certified peace officers, they can't back way from incidents, even when death or serious injury becomes a real possibility.

Their beats include untrammeled areas, remote locations that some people feel are beyond the pale of social constraints. They frequently come into contact with people who are armed.

For example, Conservation Agent Jason M. Dickey, responding to a report of gunshots being fired on a LaClede County Road, encountered a man standing in a dry creek bed upstream of the low water bridge. The man had a large liqueur bottle in one hand and an automatic pistol in the other.

"He was a big man with long gray yellowish hair, shorts and no shirt on," Dickey recalled. "He had this big bottle of bright green liqueur--about two-thirds gone--in his hand. You could tell he was intoxicated."

Dickey--in uniform--exited his truck and identified himself. He told the man to put the gun down. The man wouldn't. Dickey recognized the pistol as a Smith and Wesson 9 mm automatic. He could clearly see that the slide was forward and the hammer was cocked. Two other men, apparently unarmed, stood nearby.

"You get fired up," Dickey said, "and lots of things go through your mind as your training clicks in. I didn't know if he was on meth or drugs. I knew he was intoxicated and had fired several rounds. He still has his gun and he has ignored a verbal command from a uniformed officer. I'm also concerned about innocent bystanders. I know that I have to do what I can to get him to put the gun down."

Dickey drew his service revolver and leveled it at the man's chest. He kept his truck bed between him and the man. "I'd gone from talking to hollering as I tried to gain control of the situation. And at the same time I was trying to get the bystanders to move away, out of danger. I kept watching the guy. Different scenarios were going through my mind. I thought, 'If that barrel points in my direction, I have a wife and kids, if I want to go home and see them, I might have to shoot him.'"

After repeated orders to do so, the man finally put his gun down and allowed himself to be handcuffed. After taking the man to the LaClede County Jail, Dickey learned that he was a known methamphetamine user and a suspected dealer. Remnants of drugs were found in the man's car.

"It was one of those situations they train you for, but you don't expect to run into," Dickey said. "More than any other time in my career, I felt like my life was in danger, even as I felt in control of the situation."

It is in the nature of miscreants, that the first thing you catch them doing wrong may not be the first or only time they have broken the law. Some have lengthy records, others are still wanted for other crimes. When confronted by any law enforcement officer, these people become desperate to avoid being apprehended.

Conservation Agent John Tiller found this out for himself one afternoon while checking fishing permits along Gallinipper Creek in St. Clair County. Tiller contacted a man who had a resident fishing permit, but no other identification with him. The man was with two other men and a woman, all of whom had fishing licenses and identification.

Tiller accompanied the man to his car, which had Colorado plates. As the man searched through his girlfriend's purse for proof of residency, Tiller noticed a small bag of what looked like marijuana in the purse. The man closed the purse quickly and took it with him to his girlfriend,

saying she would have to find the proof.

The man's unusual reaction alerted Tiller. "I knew there was something more to this than what seemed to be going on," Tiller said. "When he went down to the creek, I still had his permit in hand, so I ran it through the county sheriff's office computer. I also called the other agent, Jim Hart, who I'd just left, and I asked for a deputy backup."

The man came back waving a piece of paper, so Tiller asked him to sit in the car while he checked it. At that moment, the agent's truck radio came on with information about outstanding arrest warrants for the subject.

Tiller said he had planned to play dumb until some help arrived, but the radio report made that impossible. "I told him I had to take him into custody and told him to turn around and put his hands behind his back." The man took off running, instead. Tiller ran after him.

"He missed the entrance to the trail to the creek and went flying over the riprap and stumbled and fell," Tiller said. The agent caught up with him then, and the pair wrestled around the rocky bank as Tiller attempted to handcuff him.

"He was swinging and I was blocking." Tiller said. "It was pretty much slap-face because we were too close to one another to really get any serious punches thrown."

Tiller said the man, who had no shirt on, was hot and sweaty and too slippery to grab. During the struggle, the man lowered his head and rammed into Tiller. The agent broke off the struggle when he felt the subject trying to remove his gun from his holster.

The man ran again. Tiller removed his mace and collapsible baton from his belt and started after him again. "When I was chasing him, he kept looking back, and I guessed that he was trying to time a punch. When he turned and swung, I ducked and he fell over," Tiller said.

The man regained his feet and took a boxing stance, challenging the agent to a fight. Tiller raised his baton with one hand as if to strike the man but, instead, loosed a spray of Mace toward the man's face.

"I put the mark of Zorro right across his nose and mouth. You could tell he'd been Maced before by the way he reacted. He just stiffened and clenched his fist.

By that time, Jim Hart arrived. After a violent struggle, the two agents managed to cuff the man. He was wanted on a felony warrant in Kansas and three misdemeanor warrants in Missouri and is currently in the penitentiary in Kansas.

Tiller credits both his training and a decade of working in the field with many types of people with 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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