Agent Brian Terry was killed in an ambush on the Arizona-Mexico border
His death shut down a federal gun-running program, prompted a flurry of questions
His parents filed a $25 million wrongful death claim this week
Brian Terry’s life serves as inspiration to those who knew him. His death, a thorn in the side of the federal government.
Terry, a 40-year-old federal agent, was killed December 14, 2010, after he confronted suspected drug bandits near the Arizona-Mexico border. Two weapons found near the scene of the killing were traced to a federal operation known as Fast and Furious.
The program, started in 2009, allowed firearms to be purchased from gun stores in Arizona and taken across the Mexican border to drug cartels. The intent of the operation was to monitor the flow of weapons to their ultimate destination.
But hundreds of weapons were lost or unaccounted for. When two of them showed up near Terry’s body, furor erupted, and the program folded.
Terry’s grieving mother, Josephine, was incredulous that her son’s life had been taken with a gun that should have been confiscated.
“I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe it at first,” she said.
Policymakers in Washington have been at odds over what happened, as evidenced in hearings this week.
Who knew what about the operation and when?
Terry’s parents, Josephine and Kent Terry Sr., filed a $25 million wrongful death claim Wednesday in an Arizona court. Their son’s name spurs the contentious Fast and Furious debate, scorned by critics as a travesty. His name is published in newspapers, and his face appears on television as the Justice Department defends itself before angry lawmakers.
But they must live every day with the memory of the man who triggered the fury.
They remember a boy who grew up happy in a Detroit suburb wearing color-coordinated clothes. Sometimes, he even missed the bus because he was fussing over the way he looked. His parents chalked it up to his drive for perfection.
He led the “Dead End Gang,” a group of the neighborhood boys who built forts in the woods near their homes and played ball in the local park.
The court documents filed Wednesday also portrayed a boy prone to accidents who quickly got to know the sting of stitches and hospital rooms. He even chopped off the tips of three of his fingers once, when he was helping his dad cut wood.
His parents say their son’s eyes lit up at the sight of a police patrol car or the sound of a siren. He told a trooper, “I’m gonna be a police officer when I grow up.”
The Marine Corps put him closer to his dream, and with a degree in criminal justice, Terry landed his first job as a police officer in a suburban town close to where he grew up. Eventually, he became a Border Patrol agent in Arizona.
The local gym in Sierra Vista had to order 150-pound dumbbells just for Terry’s workout as he focused on keeping himself fit. His goal was to join an elite tactical unit that required grueling training. And when he succeeded in securing a job there, he felt that he had realized his life’s mission.
He was patrolling some of the most dangerous areas of American soil, where battles raged between rival Mexican drug cartels. His family knew he risked peril every day.
The cartels often armed themselves with sophisticated rifles and firearms purchased in U.S. gun “straw shops.” Cartel members hired men and women with clean records who could pass the background checks to buy the weapons for them.
The Justice Department put its Fast and Furious operation, named after the action film, in place to try to trace where the guns ended up. It let the guns “walk” from the shops.
Terry’s family claims that despite red flags about Fast and Furious, about the guns being used to commit acts of violence, the government allowed it to continue.
That’s how on January 16, 2010, Jaime Avila walked into the Lone Wolf Trading Company in Glendale, Arizona, purchased two AK-47-type assault rifles and walked out, according to a federal indictment. He lied and said the guns were for his personal use.
On the night he died, Terry had been patrolling the hills with three other agents in the remote Peck Canyon area, known for illicit drug activity, They were looking for suspected illegal immigrants affiliated with the drug cartels, according to documents submitted by his family in the wrongful death claim.
The agents came across five men; two were carrying AK-47-type rifles.
The details of what happened next are murky. But Terry reported over the radio that shots had been fired. Paramedics and a medevac chopper were on the scene within minutes. But they were not fast enough.
They rushed Terry to a hospital when they could not find a pulse. He was pronounced dead moments later.
Four of the five bandits escaped. Avila was arrested and indicted with Uriel Patino, another straw buyer.
Terry’s family claims that the federal government knew long ago that Avila’s guns killed Terry, that their program was responsible for an agent’s death. But they lied, Terry’s parents say in their claim, to hide the failure of their program.
Some of Terry’s colleagues have spoken out against Fast and Furious, including agent John Dodson, who expressed concern to lawmakers in Washington last year.
“I cannot begin to think of how the risk of letting guns fall into the hands of known criminals could possibly advance any legitimate law enforcement interest,” he said. “I hope the committee will receive a better explanation than I.”
Terry’s family is also waiting for an explanation.
Brian Terry should not have died that night in the lonely Arizona desert. But his death, his parents believe, was not in vain, for all that it brought to light.