'It's a dangerous profession,' top enviro-cop says

Second in an occasional series on EPA's fugitives list. Click here for part 1.

Yousef Abuteir's wanted poster stands out among the 16 on U.S. EPA's Web page for environmental fugitives -- and not just because it's the most recent addition to the two-year-old list.

After a rundown of aliases, a physical description and a brief explanation of how he conspired to dodge federal excise taxes in a diesel fuel scam, there is a line written in bold letters. It reads: "Abuteir is known to carry a weapon at all times."

The warning serves as a reminder of the risks faced each day by the approximately 200 special agents who work in EPA's Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training (OCEFT). But a more profound testament to the danger EPA's law enforcement officers face is located at the agency's headquarters office in Washington, D.C. That is where OCEFT keeps a plaque that honors the agents who have died while on active duty.

In the 27 years since EPA's criminal investigators were given law enforcement powers and began carrying a badge and gun, three agents have made the ultimate sacrifice. Those three are special agents Dave DeLitta, Bill Parr and Tim Fidel. OCEFT's losses over the past three decades equal that of the Capitol Police Department, an agency that is nine times its size.


And while other local law enforcement agencies like the Secret Service and Metropolitan Police Department experienced higher losses, OCEFT's acting deputy director, Doug Parker, said last week the three deaths are "three too many."

"Like any police officer I think [OCEFT agents] do have a tough job, a dangerous job," said Texas-based criminal defense lawyer Walter James, who specializes in environmental law and has gone up against EPA and its special agents numerous times over the years.

James, who also runs a blog devoted to environmental crimes, said he has developed a healthy respect over the years for the EPA special agents who brave more than just environmental hazards on a daily basis.

"Most the agents out there do just an absolutely tremendous job and are the kind of guys you'd want to go bend an elbow with and drink beer with," he said.

One of the cases that James worked on more than two decades ago was the same case that DeLitta was helping to investigate when he lost his life.

Former marine, DEA agent killed in gun battle

In October 1988, 38-year-old David DeLitta was just a few months into his new job at what was then EPA's Office of Criminal Enforcement. The Marine Corps veteran had spent time in the Tampa Police Department and most recently served as an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration before he was assigned to the Dallas office of EPA's criminal enforcement program.

DeLitta's training officer at the time was Fred Burnside, who would go on to serve as director of OCEFT before retiring at the end of 2010. Burnside recalled last week that DeLitta decided to leave DEA because he was looking for a job that would be less dangerous and give him more time at home with his wife and two children.

But Burnside said that DeLitta was also extremely enthusiastic about becoming an enviro-cop.

During one particular drive to Houston from Dallas, Burnside recalled how the two men happened to spot a tanker truck pulled off on the side of the road with a hose in a nearby creek. Sensing something was amiss, the EPA agents pulled over, jumped out and flashed their badges at the surprised truck driver. It turns out the man was pulling water out of the creek, not dumping dangerous chemicals into it.

"But I'll never forget how excited Dave got at the thought that we had caught a dumper in the act," Burnside said.

On the evening of Oct. 27, 1988, DeLitta was escorting an EPA technical expert to a dinner meeting at a restaurant on the Gulf Freeway in Houston to discuss a case that was being brought under the Ocean Dumping Act.

As they got out of their car, DeLitta and his colleague were confronted by an armed man who demanded that they hand over their wallets. Instead, DeLitta went for the gun he carried in his ankle holster.

DeLitta and the assailant exchanged fire as the technical expert took cover behind the car. DeLitta was hit and the would-be robber fled the scene. DeLitta was rushed the hospital with a wound in his arm and a bullet in his stomach. He hung on for a day before dying on Oct. 28.

Within a week of the shooting, Cuban immigrant Anibal Garcia Rousseau was named the prime suspect in the case and a month later Rousseau turned himself into police. Rousseau maintained his innocence and surrendered through a television news reporter because he said he feared for his life. Rousseau was convicted in May 1989 of murdering DeLitta and was sentenced to death.

A dozen year's later Rousseau's case gained some notoriety when the Texas Court of Appeals asked the district court to review it after it was revealed that the gun used in DeLitta's murder had been later used by a Dominican drug dealer in another killing that occurred while Rousseau was in jail. But that review was never completed, and Rousseau died of natural causes in prison in 2006.

Food poisoning killed agent on overseas mission

Bill Parr was one of many former Secret Service agents who made a second career at EPA.

After the criminal enforcement program was reorganized in the early 1990s, Earl Devaney, a former top-level manager at the Secret Service, was brought in to guide EPA's criminal enforcement program and several of his former colleagues followed him.

Parr had 21 years of experience in the Secret Service before he came to EPA to serve as deputy director of one of OCEFT's key branches, the Criminal Investigation Division (CID).

Years later, in the wake of the security scramble caused by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Parr's Secret Service background made him an ideal agent to help out on high-level EPA protective service assignments.

When then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd was dispatched overseas in early 2002, Parr was sent along to help oversee her security detail.

"Ordinarily for domestic issues for here in the states he would not have been involved, but I think because this was a high-profile trip right after 9/11 he provided some leadership and guidance going on that trip," Burnside said.

Thomas Kohl, who has retired from EPA but was one of the first two dozen agents brought into the agency in the early 1980s, remembered that the Whitman assignment was a particularly demanding one for the 54-year-old Parr.

"It's an example of one government employee doing what three people should be doing," Kohl said. "It was wearing on him."

Parr served in the Marine Corps from 1967 to 1970 and fought in Vietnam where he won the Silver Star and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry.

He lost his life to a rare case of food poisoning that he caught while traveling on Whitman's protective detail. EPA officials believe Parr was infected during a stop in the Philippines. He died in Delhi on Jan. 17, 2002.

Computer forensic expert felled by heart attack

Before joining OCEFT, Tim Fidel earned a reputation as a computer forensic expert during more than 20 years with the Secret Service.

After moving over to EPA, Fidel was stationed at the agency's California office to serve as part of CID's computer forensics team.

On Oct. 28, 2008, 10 years to the day of DeLitta's death, Fidel helped carry out a series of raids on three homes in West Covina, Calif., for a case the office was investigating.

According to a tribute to Fidel written for the online site Officer Down Memorial Page, Fidel, 50, spent the day moving numerous boxes of evidence and several large computer storage units from the homes. He returned home that evening and suffered a fatal heart attack the following day.

The passing of Fidel, who helped design the Secret Service's Electronic Crimes Special Agents Program, was mourned in the computer forensics community. The California-based company Guidance Software issued a press release days later and eventually established a memorial award in Fidel's honor.

"Tim was a good friend and tireless supporter of all efforts to modernize forensic standards," company Chairman Shawn McCreight said in company's 2004 press release. "His support, advice and friendship were always appreciated and will never be forgotten."

That release also noted that before joining EPA, Fidel's last post at the Secret Service was with the protective detail of former President Reagan and former first lady Nancy Reagan. The release included a statement from Nancy Reagan.

"Tim was one of the finest and most devoted federal agents my husband and I ever knew," she said. "His departure from the Reagan Protective Detail in 2002 was very bittersweet. Although we were very sad to see him leave, we knew that after twenty years of dedication to the Secret Service, he would finally be able to spend more time with his family. Tim's death is tragic."

'It's the unknown that will kill you'

DeLitta, Parr and Fidel are OCEFT's saddest stories, but EPA special agents have also had some close calls over the years.

On March 13, 2009, EPA agents had tracked environmental fugitive Larkin Baggett to a campsite in the Florida Keys. Baggett had been named to EPA's wanted list after skipping out on court appearances in a Utah court after he was indicted on four felony counts of violating the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Agents and local police were preparing to execute an arrest warrant when Baggett grabbed a semiautomatic rifle equipped with two 30-round magazines taped together and pointed it at the agents. The agents fired and managed to wound Baggett. He was taken into custody and would later be sentenced to 20 years in prison.

"In this business you never know what you're walking into," said Kohl, the former agent.

Along with the possibility of running across an armed and dangerous individual like Abuteir or Baggett, EPA law enforcement agents face other, less obvious, hazards, he said.

When investigating an environmental crime scene "you don't know what chemicals are spilled on the ground or what's in the containers and you don't know what's in the air and what you've been exposing yourself to," Kohl said.

"A spark could cause an explosion, you could accidentally knock something over and cause an explosion or exposure to chemicals. ... It's the unknown that will kill you, usually not the known."

OCEFT's Parker does not try to sugarcoat the risks his agents face.

"It's a dangerous profession," he said.

At the moment, Parker said Abuteir may well be the most dangerous man on EPA's fugitive list, but all 16 members of that group concern him.

"We would seek caution with any of the fugitives that are on the list," he said. "All of these folks made the decision to avoid the consequences of justice, and that gives us pause for all of them."

The last thing Parker wants to do is to add another name to the plaque that hangs at OCEFT headquarters. Last week, he read the words that appear on that plaque above the names of DeLitta, Parr and Fidel.

"Dedicated to the EPA CID special agents who have made the ultimate sacrifice while serving to protect the citizens of the United States of America," he said. "May these agents not be forgotten."



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