- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

A public memorial was held yesterday in Yuma, Ariz., for U.S. Border Patrol Agent James P. Epling, who died last week after rescuing an illegal Chinese national from the Colorado River and then attempting to capture other fleeing aliens.

Mr. Epling’s body was found by Border Patrol divers, who said the agent apparently had stumbled into a 27-foot hole in the river while chasing the other aliens and drowned in the swift moving water. He disappeared Dec. 16 and was located three days later.

After Mr. Epling’s body was found, Border Patrol agents who had participated in the search covered him with an American flag, and gave him a final salute.

The FBI is investigating the death. Four illegal aliens, three of whom also were identified as Chinese nationals, were taken into custody by other agents after Mr. Epling disappeared, along with a fourth man identified as a Mexican national, a suspected alien smuggler.

Law-enforcement authorities said yesterday if the Mexican national was identified as the person Mr. Epling was chasing, he could face charges in connection with the agent’s death, since it occurred during the commission of a federal felony, alien smuggling.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commission head Robert C. Bonner, who oversees the Border Patrol, said the 24-year-old agent was in foot pursuit of the aliens and a suspected alien smuggler on the California side of the river at the time he disappeared south of Yuma.

Mr. Bonner said the agent, who leaves three small children and a wife eight months pregnant, had just pulled the unidentified Chinese national woman to the safety of the shore when he began his pursuit of the others.

He said that moments before his disappearance, Mr. Epling, with complete disregard for his personal safety, entered the swift, cold waters of the Colorado River to rescue the female alien. He said the agent reached for the woman and pulled her to the safety of the riverbank where another agent waited to assist.

“The brave actions and untimely death of Agent James P. Epling have profoundly affected all of us at CBP. Our agents face daily challenges and dangers safeguarding our borders. This tragedy reflects that reality. We mourn the passing of CBP Border Patrol Agent James P. Epling, one of our nation’s heroic guardians,” Mr. Bonner said.

Border Patrol Chief Gus De La Vina said the “depth of this tragedy” was felt throughout the agency.

“The loss of such a promising young agent, bravely carrying out his duty, has created a great emptiness within our ranks. Our thoughts and prayers are now with his family, especially his children, as we honor his courage and sacrifice,” Chief De La Vina said.

A massive search and rescue operation involving multiple local, state, federal and Mexican officials was immediately initiated after Mr. Epling was reported missing. After three days of searching, Mr. Epling’s body was discovered about 200 yards from where agents last saw him.

He was found in the water with the help of an underwater camera that spotted him in what agents described as the most difficult part of the river, which provided dive teams with only 6 to 12 inches of visibility, said Joe Brigman, spokesman for the Yuma Border Patrol office.

The area of the river where the agent was lost is bordered by thick brush, through which search teams had to cut.

Mr. Epling, a member of the Army Reserve, joined the Border Patrol less than a year before his death. He is a native of Bremerton, Wash. The public service was held at the Yuma Civic and Convention Center.

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