By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer
It’s a call no law enforcement agency wants to receive – an officer has been wounded.
One of those calls came in to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) on Nov. 5, 2013, following a warrant service on a residence in Fresno, where a dangerous criminal was hiding out.
Nine members of a task force made of agents and officers from CDCR, the U.S. Marshals Service and Fresno County Sheriff’s Office responded to the house after receiving a tip that a man wanted for several felonies – including false imprisonment, kidnapping, sexual assault and torture – was there. Four members of that team are agents of CDCR’s Fugitive Apprehension Team (FAT).
“Day in and day out, they go after the worst of the worst,” said Charles Dangerfield, Chief of CDCR’s Office of Correctional Safety.
These highly trained agents spend their days tracking dangerous fugitives, getting them off the streets and into custody. In the Fresno case, the fugitive, Jerry Vue, had been on the run for 16 months and, according to a close friend, had vowed to “kill as many cops as possible” to avoid being taken into custody.
The CDCR team consisted of Special Agents Dennis Reitz and Scott Moore, and Parole Agents I’s Joe Basile and Nate Castro. The task force established a perimeter around the residence. After removing other occupants of the house, including minor children, agents entered the home.
The first one in was Agent Castro. Upon entering the garage, Vue opened fire on the team and shot Castro, who was protected by a bullet-resistant vest that no doubt saved his life
Agents continued to respond to Vue while covering the injured Castro, even stepping into the line of fire to prevent Vue from entering the rest of the apartment. Vue ran outside and continued to shoot at the task force officers until he was shot and killed.
In addition to Castro, Fresno County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert McEwen and a Deputy U.S. Marshal were wounded by Vue. All three recently received the Law Enforcement Purple Heart, issued by the U.S. Marshal Service, in recognition of their actions.
The Law Enforcement Purple Heart is an American law enforcement medal issued to officers who are wounded or killed in the line of duty, its color representing bravery, courage and honor.
The actions of all task force and support team members were honored at the Purple Heart ceremony in Fresno.
“The awardees are being recognized for something very, very important that they do for all of us,” said U.S. Marshal Albert Najera. “I for one am very, very happy that these gentlemen are here.”
Chief Dangerfield pointed out that while the Purple Heart is an honor, it also highlights the inherent dangers of being part of the FAT.
“Not just anyone, in my opinion, can do the job that these folks do,” he said.
He speaks from experience. Chief Dangerfield himself was a special agent with the OCS Special Service Unit.
He said it takes not only a special type of person to be part of FAT, but it also requires intense, specialized training that is ongoing throughout the agent’s career.
“We have to prepare our people, to the best of our ability, to respond to whatever they may encounter,” he said.
Being an agent with FAT is a highly sought-after assignment, and it’s one agents rarely leave. It’s an assignment centered on safety and teamwork, and Chief Dangerfield said that was clearly illustrated by the actions of the task force members who continued their work while protecting the injured officers.
“You cannot do this job by yourself, you just cannot,” he said. “That unit is like a family. They’re like brothers and sisters in that unit.”
Those siblings were joined by the larger OCS family and numerous law enforcement officers for the Purple Heart ceremony. Speakers included Morrison England Jr., Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.
As he presented the Purple Heart recipients with commemorative coins in appreciation for their service, he thanked all agencies present for their daily sacrifices.
“We will never forget the things that you have done and the heroic actions that you took,” Judge England said.
David Harlow, Deputy Director of the U.S. Marshals Service, traveled from Washington, D.C., for the ceremony. He reflected on the many men and women who put themselves in harm’s way day after day for the safety of their communities, and said he knows what the answer is every time one of those people is asked why they do it.
“Because it’s my job. I protect and serve, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”