Pioneering female ATF agent looks back at job
By Rick Kogan
Observe, if you will, this delightful domestic scene.
There is a mother and a son and a dog. They are nestled on a comfortable couch in modest house in the northern reaches of Evanston. Outside the house, which is painted blue, are trees preparing for autumn, lawns getting ready for fallen leaves.
The dog is Rusty, a golden retriever who is 10 years old.
The young man is 17-year-old Sam Beebe, a senior at Evanston Township High School.
The mother is Cynthia Beebe and she has written her first book and it is dedicated to Sam.
Do not think this book is a tender domestic romp. Though it does have many moments of familial warmth, "Boots in the Ashes" (Hachette Book Group) is primarily focused on some of the darker events that peppered Beebe's nearly 30 years coursing through, as she writes, "a violent world of murders, gangsters and bombers. I learned why people shoot, burn and blow up each other. I have seen terrible things."
That was her job. She spent 27 years as a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. She was a pioneer, in 1987 becoming one of the first women hired as a special agent, but she does not indulge in feminist chest-thumping here but rather tells her story in a compellingly straightforward style.
She tells us that she comes from an innocent time and place, writing: "We didn't lock our front doors when I was growing up in suburban Chicago in the 1960s," and, "I loved high school. I had great teachers and good grades came easily to me." She was a very good athlete and at one point thought she "would either get a doctorate in literature on Dostoevsky or Virginia Woolf, go to law school, or even get a master's degree in journalism."
She was on just such a track, earning a bachelor's in English and American literature at Northwestern University and a master's at its Medill School of Journalism. But new opportunities for women were opening in law enforcement, and she joined the ATF in its Minneapolis-St. Paul offices for a few years before coming back to its Chicago-area offices. They were strangely exciting years, as captured here, when she writes about the aftermath of the bombing of a judge's house: "We spent the day digging through mounds of debris containing heavy timber, sections of wall, roof, flooring, carpet, appliances and furniture. ... We knelt on the ground and sifted through mounds of ashes, reminding me of charcoal in the bottom of the grill. At times when I look around at the other agents bending over and looking for evidence, I was reminded of playing in the sand when I was a little kid. But instead of building sand castles ... we dug out charred rubble and searched for the story it would tell us. It was still fun, but we had a different purpose."
One of the book's strengths is the forthright way in which it takes us into several of her cases, from a jealous boyfriend who mistakenly bombs an innocent neighbor to a wacko living in the forest and terrorizing strangers.
In eventually confronting such characters she told me, "With bad guys you have to have your guard up and be fairly aggressive. The best defense is a good offense, but I always tried to be polite and respectful even when I knew I was sitting across from murderers."
The spookiest of these murderers was a man named Ron Petkus, who was, she writes, "as bad a man as I ever investigated as an ATF agent. He was an enforcer for the Hell's Henchmen outlaw motorcycle club, now a part of the Hell's Angels. He told me on his deathbed in prison that he had murdered 46 people. Bloodshed and violence were his profession, and he was good at it."
One look at the photo of Petkus in the book is enough to haunt your nightmares for keeps, and it was Petkus' relationship with the much more polished but equally diabolical criminal defense attorney named Richard Kagan that forms the centerpiece of the book. Kagan wanted his wife killed and, for $10,000, hired the biker to do the deed. This crime and the ensuing trial were widely covered in the press in the mid-1990s, but Beebe's behind-the-scenes details offer great insight and considerable chills.
It also displays Beebe's clear writing style. Though in high school she "loved to read and study and write," this book did not come easy. She credits a writing class taught long ago by former Chicago newspaperman Jon Ziomek at Northwestern. She credits her friendship with former newsman and author Wayne Klatt. She credits members of her book club.
"I listened to them all and I took their advice and I just wrote and wrote and wrote," she told me. "Some chapters I rewrote 10, 11 times."
You get to know her on a personal level, living through the pain of the death of her mother from cancer. ("Until I adopted my son years later, the best thing I ever did was help my mom die, knowing she was dearly loved," she writes.) Then there come the palpable joys of adopting Sam as an infant from Russia and watching him, though it was never easy, grow "into a fine young man."
There are timely insights, too, as when she tells us about working details protecting political candidates and presidents, writing, "I heard both funny and less funny stories about the White House and the people in it, some going back decades. But the agents always said they 'protect the position, not the person,' and I never saw otherwise."
She retired from ATF in 2014 and, in addition to working on her book, she has made occasional radio and television appearances as a commentator when, all too frequently, mass shootings took place. She is now collaborating on a book with former toymaker and acclaimed sculptor Jeffrey Breslow.
"I overcame many obstacles to get to where I am today, a happy suburban mom," she writes near her book's ending. "I never gave up. Through (it all), I grew, learned, and changed."
When she and Sam leave their house to take Rusty for a walk, they lock their doors.