by David Turk, Historian, U.S. Marshals Service
Certain tragic moments in Marshals Service history bear thoughtful reflection. We memorialize all 246 official line-of-duty deaths. The unfortunate reality holds that US Marshals Service personnel face daily dangers going after the "worst of the worst" fugitives. This truth resonates brightly in our heritage. The most recent remembrances are the anniversaries marking the deaths of Deputy U.S. Marshal Derek Hotsinpiller, on February 16, 2011, and Senior Inspector John Perry, March 8, 2011. Both brave men were gunned down on missions against armed fugitives.
Tributes to U.S. Marshal Kenneth Muir and Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Cheshire evoke historical recollections of their deaths near Medina, N.D., on February 13, 1983 – some 30 years ago to the day. A third deputy marshal, James Hopson Jr., was forced into retirement due to disability from severe wounds sustained in the gun battle. Because of a few fateful moments, all three men will always be linked to another name – tax protestor Gordon Kahl.
In the spring of 1981, Gordon Kahl, 63, arrived in his native North Dakota from Texas, where he worked as a steam operator for an oil-related business. Federal authorities wanted him on a warrant for probation violation, stemming from the non-payment of taxes back in the 1970's. Although imprisoned for a year and on probation for five more, he claimed that his tax protest group was a "church" and therefore tax exempt, despite no legal standing. He brought his family to North Dakota and quickly gathered more followers. His group brandished a paramilitary appearance and came to be known as the "Posse Comitatus." Kahl had a grassroots network within the community that was sympathetic to his cause.
Law enforcement had been watching Kahl's activities in and around Heaton, N.D. He successfully avoided authorities a number of times, but information developed about a meeting of his group in Heaton on Feb. 13, 1983. Muir, Cheshire, Hopson and Deputy U.S. Marshal Carl Wigglesworth worked with local authorities to assemble a roadblock and arrest Kahl when he headed home from the meeting. A blocking vehicle and a "chase" car would seal off the road from the front and behind. Cheshire was in the "chase" vehicle; Muir was at the roadblock in front.
At approximately 6 p.m., Kahl was a passenger in one of two vehicles leaving the meeting and heading toward the roadblock just outside the city of Medina. The road rolled over several hills and allowed Kahl's party to see flashing police light in time to turn back and avoid the roadblock. As Kahl's party headed back, they encountered the "chase" vehicle. They were armed with semi-automatic rifles and pinned down Cheshire as he tried to make a stand.
Realizing the danger, Muir took his car to the scene and attempted to negotiate with Kahl and his supporters. Cheshire was shot, and a firefight ensued, claiming the lives of Muir and Cheshire, and wounding Hopson and a sheriff's deputy.
Kahl and his followers escaped, setting off a nationwide manhunt that lasted until June. Law enforcement tracked Kahl to Walnut Ridge, Ark. Despite being well-provisioned, a local sheriff was killed before Kahl could be stopped. The sheriff apparently shot Kahl dead before succumbing to his mortal wound. The ensuing firefight ignited the structure which had a flammable sod roof. It is believed that the sheriff's bullet killed Kahl.
Muir, 63, a seasoned deputy who began his career in 1959, had served bravely during the University of Mississippi riots in 1962. He rose through the ranks and became U.S. Marshal for the District of North Dakota in June 1981. Cheshire, 32, joined the US Marshal's Service in 1978.
US Marshals Service Director William E. Hall and U.S. Attorney General William French Smith met with the families of the fallen US Marshals Service personnel and honored their lives for making the supreme sacrifice in the line of duty. President Ronald Reagan personally expressed his condolences.
Cheshire left a widow and three small children. Muir was survived by his wife and three children as well. Hopson retired with a permanent disability from a bullet wound and has since passed away.
At the 30-year mark, there are many ways to look back at Medina. The tragedy was not a singular instance, as history has since proven. By remembering Muir, Cheshire, Hopson and Wigglesworth, along with Hotsinpiller and Perry in more recent times, we honor their service and memory. Their deaths remind us of the important work performed by deputy marshals every day.
Current North Dakota U.S. Marshal Paul Ward may have put it best: "Today we honor all the law enforcement officers involved who gave all they could and all they had. Their final act of bravery will live on forever in the memories of the good people throughout the Marshals Service."