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Service to America Medal Finalists: Homeland Security and Law Enforcement

High-stakes efforts save a 5-year-old hostage, disrupt pervasive crime and protect livestock from disease.

There are numerous unheralded civil servants who play critical roles protecting the nation and its citizens from criminal activity and foreign threats.

On Oct. 3, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service will present the prestigious Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal for Homeland Security and Law Enforcement to one of the five finalists profiled below. The accomplishments of the individuals include freeing a kidnapped 5-year-old boy held hostage by an armed killer, reducing crime on American Indian reservations, helping to develop and obtain licensing for a new foot-and-mouth disease vaccine to guard against agro-terrorism, tracking down child pornographers and disrupting the operations of two New York organized crime families.

These public servants are among 31 finalists honored in seven categories ranging from citizen services to science and the environment. Here are the stories of the Service to America Medal finalists for the Homeland Security and Law Enforcement category.

Stephen E. Richardson: Oversaw harrowing FBI rescue of a 5-year-old held hostage by an armed killer

It was a harrowing life-or-death decision, one that FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen Richardson felt he had no choice but to make.

After a tense six-day standoff, Richardson ordered an FBI hostage rescue team to storm an underground bunker in a small rural Alabama community where Jimmy Lee Dykes, armed with weapons and bombs, held a 5-year-old boy captive after having shot and killed a school bus driver and then abducted the child. 

“I knew that unless immediate action was taken, a child fatality would be an inevitable result. I gave the order to execute the rescue plan. That’s when time seemed to stop for me. I heard a commotion and ensuing gunfire. I looked at the tactical commander and said, ‘You have got to tell me the child is safe,’ ” Richardson recalled. “It was maybe 30 to 45 seconds, and I heard a child’s cry over the radio. It was a huge surge of relief for all.”

These final moments marked the successful culmination of a gut-wrenching ordeal for Richardson, his FBI team, and local and state law enforcement. The child was physically unharmed and whisked to safety after the FBI assault on the bunker. The rescue team miraculously emerged unscathed even as Dykes, who died from multiple gunshot wounds, opened fire and detonated a bomb planted not far from the bunker.

Charles Addington: Reducing crime rates on American Indian reservations

With violent crime rates on Indian reservations hovering at twice the national average, Charles Addington of the Bureau of Indian Affairs employed an innovative use of crime-statistical analysis, community-led policing, staffing realignments and other measures to tackle this disturbing problem.

The goal of the strategy, one of the Obama administration’s high-priority initiatives, was to reduce the violent crime rates on four American Indian reservations by 5 percent within two years as a pilot project that eventually could be replicated throughout Indian country. But Addington’s program far exceeded expectations, lowering the crime rate by an average of 35 percent at the four participating reservations.

“This has never been done in Indian country before,” said Darren Cruzan, director of BIA’s Office of Justice Services. “Lots of people were involved, but Charlie was the mastermind.”

The agency is sharing this model among all other Native American communities.

Michelle Colby: Protecting livestock and food industries with a new foot-and-mouth disease vaccine

The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the U.K. in 2001 and South Korea in 2011 forced the slaughter of millions of animals and huge economic losses for livestock and food industries.

Fearing similar severe consequences if the highly contagious animal disease were to appear in the United States, federal scientists worked for years to develop and win approval of a unique new vaccine to protect America’s cows, sheep and pigs. The leader of the federal team that shepherded this livestock vaccine to licensure is Michelle Colby, a veterinarian and branch chief of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, a branch of the Homeland Security Department.

“This is the first ever foot-and-mouth vaccine licensed for manufacture in the United States. The breakthrough could potentially save the country billions if not trillions of dollars and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of animals if there were an outbreak,” said Paul Benda, director of the Homeland Security Advance Research Projects Agency.

The new vaccine has been shown to produce protective immunity in livestock and, in the event of an outbreak, would be administered to control transmission. While the virus typically spreads among infected animals, officials at DHS do not rule out the possibility that it could be intentionally introduced into U.S. livestock herds by terrorists.

John MacKinnon: Employing unique methods to track down child pornographers

Tracking down child pornographers and locating the young victims is like finding a needle in a haystack, but investigators from Immigration and Customs Enforcement have had tremendous success through a combination of innovative forensic technology and old-fashioned detective work.

Led by John MacKinnon, an ICE Homeland Security Investigations team in Boston has focused on finding and rescuing exploited children by analyzing lurid photos and videos for even the smallest clues that might point them to the scene of the crime and the perpetrators. They monitor the Internet, social media and chat room logs, and they take advantage of international networks to post information and seek help as part of their investigations.

Emphasis is placed on first locating the victims, a strategy that has helped lead investigators to sex offenders and opened up new avenues to pursue others who produce and trade child pornography and abuse children.

Since 2010, the ICE team’s work has led to the identification of 162 child victims and the arrest of 52 individuals domestically and internationally. This success has resulted in the adoption of the Boston group’s techniques across the agency and around the globe.

Seamus McElearney: Leading an FBI crackdown on two New York mob families

Relying on mobsters-turned-informants, secret recordings and painstaking police work, a special team of FBI agents struck major blows against two New York organized-crime families responsible for murders, extortion, labor racketeering, fraud, loansharking and other serious crimes.

Since 2008, the FBI team known as C-38, led by Supervisory Special Agent Seamus McElearney, has spearheaded the dismantling of the once mighty Colombo and Bonanno La Cosa Nostra families, with the arrests of 120 members and associates that have included the top echelons of both crime organizations. In the past several years, guilty pleas or jury convictions have been obtained for 115 of those individuals.

“The Colombo family has pretty much been decimated. They are in complete shambles and disarray,” said Belle Chen, an assistant special agent in charge at the FBI’s New York Field Office. “The Bonanno family has been severely disrupted.”

Chen said McElearney was a linchpin for massive investigations, making key day-to-day tactical and operational decisions, and engaged with his team members in convincing hardened criminals to break their oaths of silence and become cooperating witnesses. “His experience and knowledge of the families and their culture was a key to the success of this squad,” said Chen.

Lara Shane is Vice President of Research and Communications at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. This article is the third in a series on the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. For information about the awards and how to nominate a federal employee for a medal, go to servicetoamericamedals.org. The 2013 Sammies program is supported by national sponsors Booz Allen Hamilton, Boston Consulting Group, Chevron, ConantLeadership and United Technologies Corporation. 

(Image via Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock.com)

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