Rusty Powell is one of these heroes. His personal ordeal dramatically impacts those individuals his life touches on both sides of the border.
Richard Martinez, an FBI agent with a Mexican heritage of his own, risks his life and career to rescue Powell from the grip of a violent drug cartel and the forces of nature to bring the nightmare to an end.
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By Allan Winneker
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Allan Winneker
All rights reserved.
The inexorably rising, early August sun, already intense and firing up the Tucson landscape at seven in the morning, broke through the bedroom blinds as Rusty Powell finished his shower and was shaving in the bathroom before heading down to the kitchen for breakfast. Another 100-plus degree day was in the offing.
An early riser, Melinda Powell was up at six, had already made a pot of coffee and was finishing up a couple of scrambled eggs when her husband walked into the kitchen and from behind, gently planted a couple of kisses on her neck.
"Ouch, you stabbed me with your badge again, mister!" All Melinda had on was a thin, black, lacy negligee, with little protection from Rusty's Border Patrol ID badge hardware. "Sit yourself down. Juice is on the table. The eggs are just about ready to go on the plate. How many slices of toast, sir?"
"Two's fine. I have to get going. There's a meeting at eight. Everybody with second shift duty has to be there. What's your day look like?"
"I'm meeting Cindy for lunch. We're going to decide on the date for her garage sale. She has a boatload of stuff to get rid of before the move. The rest they are going to donate to their church and some to Goodwill. Scott just learned that he has to start the new job in San Diego on September 1."
"That's pretty quick", Rusty said, as he climbed aboard the bar stool at the island in the kitchen and swallowed a gulp of hot coffee. "I'll give him a call to touch base. Let's try to get together with them for dinner Saturday night."
"I'll ask Cindy, but they're obviously up to their eyeballs trying to get everything done before the move."
Scott and Cindy Kendall were the Powells' closest friends. Leaving Tucson, where Scott was a district sales manager for Kraft Foods was going to be an emotional experience for the two couples. Melinda was already anticipating the loss of her best buddy. As gregarious and popular as Melinda was, it was invariably Cindy that she leaned on for emotional support.
Rusty inhaled his eggs and toast, gulped down what remained in his coffee mug, and kissed Melinda goodbye. "Have a great day, honey. Say hi to Cindy." He grabbed the holster that housed the Berretta 96D "Brigadier" pistol, assigned to all Agents, clipped it to his belt and headed for the garage to get aboard the heavily traveled 2010 Honda Civic and hit the road.
The drive to Nogales from the Powells' ranch-style home in West Tucson, a little over 60 miles, was less than an hour drive, mostly along Interstate 19, a barren, boring run of highway, and the only direct way to get from Tucson to Nogales. The majority of Border Patrol agents assigned to Nogales made the drive every day. Tucson was far and away the more desirable place to hang their hats.
Randall Powell, known as Rusty to everyone but his mother, Rose, and a few aunts and uncles, was a 29-year old U.S. Border Patrol Agent, assigned to the Nogales, Arizona station, one of most active, heavily staffed, and notoriously dangerous border crossings in the country.
Rusty and Melinda made the move to Tucson in 2010, when Rusty accepted the Border Patrol position after a five-year tour of duty in the Marine Corps. His career choice had always been law enforcement since the age of twelve. A hair over six feet, solidly built, with buzzed auburn hair and brooding soft green eyes, Powell was a handsome, but rugged looking native of Joplin, Missouri. His dry sense of humor and gregarious personality endeared him to men and women alike.
Melinda met him at a University of Missouri football game in Columbia, where they were both juniors at the time and dating other classmates. That first meeting did it. They were inseparable from that day on.
Rusty's father, Lloyd, was a career Marine officer, retiring after twenty years of service. Thanks to his dad, the Corps was in Rusty's blood. Marriage waited until he finished officers training at Quantico, Virginia three years later. The couple was married in a small church in Melinda's hometown of Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
After two long tours of duty in Afghanistan, Powell easily concluded that he was not going to follow in his father's footsteps and make the Corps a career. A few months after his discharge, he applied and was accepted to attend the Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico. The 58-day course was grueling, both physically and mentally. Having just left the Marine Corps, he was in excellent shape. Nevertheless, the Border Patrol training was a true test. And Rusty, not even close to being fluent in Spanish, was required to learn the language, managing to struggle through the Academy's additional 40-day task based program.
During the three months of Rusty's training, Melinda waited at her parent's home until Rusty could be assigned to a Customs & Border Patrol station, immediately after graduating from the Academy in late April 2010.
Gary Childers was assigned to work with Rusty that day. For obvious reasons, agents rarely worked alone. Childers was a six-year Border Patrol veteran, a California native, serving his first three years at a station in El Paso. He and Rusty functioned well together. When out in the field as a team on patrol, which was frequently the case, Powell did the tracking, while Childers provided security when on the move. He was an excellent marksman and comfortable with a variety of firearms.
That morning, there were 45 Agents on duty. The Patrol Agent in Charge, Carroll Page, entered the Nogales station meeting room following muster call. Page, a ten year Border Patrol veteran, had pretty much seen it all. Prior to the major buildup in the size of the force, implemented during the George W. Bush administration, the organization was grossly understaffed and stretched to the breaking point. Agents were often forced into making dangerous, risky decisions, often working alone. Carroll Page was a seasoned, tough customer, and knew the drill. A native of Fresno, California, he served as a staff sergeant in the Army and was decorated for his service in the first Gulf War. Tall and wiry, his closely cropped blonde hair was receding at the forehead. He sported a wide, graying moustache that completed the tough guy image. He was rarely seen without his aviator-style sunglasses.
That morning Page looked even more serious than usual. "This is shaping up to be one hell of a day", he said, scanning the room full of Agents.
"We brought in 122 undocumented last night. Seems like the boys in Altar were particularly busy yesterday, shipping folks up here by the bushel via the Highway." Page was referring to the rugged road known as Devil's Highway that winds through the Sonoran desert and mountains, eventually reaching Nogales, Mexico, where the illegals, Mexicans eager for work, could often find their way across the border.
Page continued. "If we apprehended that many last night, I would expect you to see tracks on a bunch of other ones trying to get north today. With the heat, a few may be unequipped with enough water to stay alive. So be heads up. Don't take unnecessary chances, and stay hydrated yourselves. We could hit 110 this afternoon. That's' all."
The second shift personnel scattered; some went to the office to check emails. A handful of agents moved to take up their post at the border crossing station; several teams that had field assignments got to their vehicles after getting their still-open cases from the shift handoff. Rusty and Gary Childers took a handoff from two other agents who ended their shift. The assignment was to pursue what was believed to be a group of at least four illegals that managed to escape capture in the wee hours of the morning. The agents were issued a Jeep J8, a vehicle rigged for rough terrain, for the day's work. After loading the Jeep with food, water, ammunition and additional communication gear, they took off. Rusty drove. They headed west-northwest toward the Pena Blanca Reservoir. It was 9:30 in the morning. The red-orange desert sun was already punctuating its ominous presence.
A Predator B unmanned drone aircraft, based in Sierra Vista, Arizona, about 75 miles to the east, was provided with a radio message from the Border Station that specified the direction the Mexicans had taken once crossing the border, just west of Nogales. The drone, which had sophisticated tracking gear and infrared cameras, began the search a few hours earlier. Powell and Childers were able to communicate with the drone specialists in Sierra Vista who controlled the aircraft's movements. Both agents were confident that the Predator would eventually spot the suspects and pinpoint their numbers and location. That would make it far easier for the agents on the ground to catch up with them later in the day.
Childers was already bathed in sweat. His sunglasses were incessantly covered with sand, making it difficult to keep his focus on the terrain ahead. Rusty was driving, but Gary, although used to the drill, was responsible for their security, and was fighting the harsh conditions. "On this heading we'll see more snakes than illegals for the next few hours".
"No doubt,", Rusty said. "Let's hope the Predator spots these guys before noon. I wouldn't bet on it, though. Brennan and Gonzales said they had about a three hour head start."
"Yeah, but in this heat they're going to have to make beaucoup stops. There isn't a hell of a lot of heavy brush in this direction to give them cover. What did you bring for lunch?"
Rusty laughed, as he negotiated the Jeep around some rough, rocky ground. "The menu is bologna and Swiss on stale rye. The chips are stale too. What can I say old buddy; things are tough?"
Childers didn't respond right away, as he was cleaning off his sunglasses and making a concerted effort to keep from falling out of the vehicle, as they drove over a large, somewhat hidden sinkhole in the sand. "That'll do. And to supplement our tasty water supply I brought some Gatorade to wash it down."
Cindy drove her Ford Explorer, loaded with items she was donating to their church, to the Powells' place to pick up Melinda. Their plans had changed. Originally, Melinda was going to drive. Cindy pulled into the Powells' driveway, beeped the horn and Melinda appeared, darting out the front door, dressed for the hot day in powder blue shorts, snowy white blouse and a pair of silver flats from 9 West. Her long blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. About 5'9" in her bare feet, Melinda towered over most of her girl friends, with the exception of Cindy, who was about the same height.
What separated Melinda from Cindy, and her other friends as well, was a near perfect figure, with long, slinky legs, a nothing waist and beautifully shaped full breasts. High cheekbones, pronounced dimples when she smiled, and full, soft lips completed the picture. She could easily have had a career in modeling intimate apparel, or swimsuits, but loved to write. Her degree in journalism from Missouri gave her more than adequate credentials for a career with a news organization, but she chose writing children's books instead and was about to finish her third effort in that regard. The first two sold reasonably well, through bookstores and via the website she created, virtually on her own.
Cindy, on the other hand, dropped out of the University of Tennessee in her sophomore year and attended a cooking school in Nashville, where she eventually found a job as a sous chef at a French restaurant. When Scott accepted a position in Tucson, Cindy found it somewhat difficult to land a reasonably well-paying job. The birth of their first child, a boy they named Wilson, nicknamed Will, put an end to her job-hunting efforts. With Scott's new position in San Diego, the Kendalls would be able to manage quite well with one wage earner in the family. A phenomenal cook and pastry baker, Cindy tried, without success, to get Melinda to work with her on a cookbook. Now they would have to resort to emails and phone calls to stay in touch.
The love of cooking and baking presented a formidable challenge in managing Cindy's waistline, as well as that of her husband Scott. Both struggled with the battle of the bulge. They belonged to a health club and usually worked out two or three times a week, but of late, given Scott's impending job change and the relocation task, the workouts were put on hold.
They motored on to the Kendall's church and dropped off a number of bags of clothing and an assortment of table lamps that were going to be donated to one of the church's local charities. From there they stopped for gasoline and then headed to a nearby Olive Garden for lunch. The restaurant was not one of Melinda's favorites, but the soup and salad option was fine. The conversation was focused on the garage sale planning. The date for the sale was set. It would be held the second Saturday in September. Scott will have started his new job in San Diego by then. But Rusty would be there to help and Melinda agreed to help with all facets of the event. She even volunteered to write the ad for the Arizona Daily Star.
The girls talked their way through lunch, paid the check and headed back to Melinda's to finish the garage sale planning. Around 3PM, Cindy drove home, stopping off at a neighbor's home to retrieve little Wilson, a month away from his third birthday.
Ben Rosetti, the lead man on Predator drone control in Sierra Vista, gazed intently at one of the computer screens with real-time views from the aircraft. Nothing that would have matched up with the description provided by the Nogales CBP Station was visible at the moment. The search specs related to a group of maybe four or five men on foot, that in all likelihood crossed the border on the western side of Nogales around 4AM in the morning. Given the amount of ground that a group that size, staying together, could cover in six hours, the drone was scanning an area about 20 to 25 miles north-northwest of the Nogales border station.
Rosetti then spotted the Jeep carrying Powell and Childers in that direction. He was able to reach the team by phone. "Hey, it's Predator Control at Sierra Vista. My name is Rosetti. The drone has you in its sights. Any further information on the target group's travel? Over."
The voice quality was weak, but Rusty could decipher what Rosetti was saying. "We have you five by five. Thanks for checking in, Rosetti. Nothing yet. We're looking for footprints, and signs of any temporary campsite, but it's a needle in the Sonoran haystack. If we don't get anything by around 1600 hours we will head back to base. So keep looking ahead of us. And thanks. I know you've got other fish to fry. Over."
"No problem. I'm on the controls with this magical flying bird until 1800 hours, so we're in this together. Be safe." Rosetti, a 50-year old veteran of Customs and Border Protection, moved over to Sierra Vista in early 2011. He had often been in Agents Powell and Childers' shoes and knew the drill.
It was high noon and as yet there were no foot tracks or other signs of people movement. So the Agents remained in the Jeep and kept moving in a north-northwest direction, unless and until there were any visible signs that would suggest that they should change course. The ambient temperature, according to the instruments in the vehicle, was 107.
A few minutes later, reacting to a buzzing signal, Childers picked up the headset of their radio receiver. "Powell and Childers here. Over."
"Hey, it's Rosetti. No signs of anybody on foot, but we've cited a beat-up white Chevy Van, no markings visible, and it's heading due north now about five miles from your present location. How it got here is the sixty-four dollar question. It's moving kind of slow, maybe doing 35mph, no doubt because of the rough terrain. It's obviously the all-wheel drive version, and by the looks of it, at least five or six years old. You could probably catch up with it within the hour. I'm getting a closer look now; it's got New Mexico plates – RPK-292. Be careful, guys. I don't like the looks of that thing. Want me to send help? Over."
Excerpted from Border Line by Allan Winneker. Copyright © 2013 Allan Winneker. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
Part I A Routine Patrol.................... 1
Part II Agent Unaccounted For.................... 31
Part III A Deal is Done.................... 111
Part IV Devastation.................... 123
Part V The Search Is On.................... 177
Part VI Heading Home.................... 281