Robin Ahrens was a gifted athlete: a snow and water skier; swimmer and canoeist.
Robin Ahrens was a gifted athlete: a snow and water skier; swimmer and canoeist.

(WOMENSENEWS)– Oct. 5, 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Robin Ahrens, the first female FBI agent killed in the line of duty at age 33. Her short time at the bureau capped a life full of tackling difficult tasks head on.

The official FBI report on the shooting, obtained by Women’s eNews through a Freedom of Information request, states “The actions of special agent Robin L. Ahrens during the night of 10-4-85 appear to be logical, justified and predictable. It is not known why the agents shot at special agent Ahrens.”

The report concludes that the agents who shot her “were near panic and exhibited faulty and atrocious judgment when they fatally shot Ahrens.”

Those agents, Douglas Harada and Thomas Fernandez, resigned several months after the incident. Other agents at the scene were disciplined.

Retired FBI agent Deborah Pierce, who joined the bureau in 1979, was working in Cleveland when she heard about the death of Ahrens. She said it “absolutely makes it doubly tragic” that Ahrens was killed by friendly fire.

“What I’ve heard over the years, that it just was bad timing at the scene. People were really fired up and there was a lack of communication,” said Pierce, in a recent phone interview.

The chance for women to serve as agents in the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not come until 1972. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the agency’s only director for 48 years, refused to allow women to even apply; claiming they couldn’t handle the physical rigors of the job.

When Hoover died, the rules quickly changed. Anthony D. Farinacci, currently an agent in Phoenix, said women now make up about 20 percent of FBI agents.

And, like agent Pierce, some are reaching the highest ranks of the organization.

“When I give presentations, I often say that J. Edgar Hoover is still spinning in his grave that I made it to the position of deputy assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division,” Pierce said.

Pierce, the chair of the Former FBI Agent Chapter in Minnesota, is responsible for tending Ahrens’ grave in Mendota Heights, Minn. She also works with Ahrens’ alma mater, Hudson High School, in Wisconsin, to administer a scholarship in her name. She said women who have successfully made it through the rigorous physical and mental testing of the FBI Academy had to have confidence going in.

“I knew I had the smarts, physical abilities and leadership capabilities,” said Pierce.

Lost Leader

And she believes Ahrens brought exactly those qualities to the bureau.

“She was still one of the pioneers; even in 1985 she was still probably part of the first few hundred women to come on board. Her athletic ability, the fact that she made it through training school and was very well thought of: We lost a fine athlete, investigator and leader. She would have been a leader,” said Pierce.

“She was a woman of action,” said Dan Lyksett, a high school classmate who is now news editor at the Eau Claire Wisconsin Leader -Telegram. In a column he wrote about her in 2005, he noted how, in the late 1960s, gifted athletes and adventurers like Ahrens had to create their own opportunities. “What few girls’ sports existed were intramural and half-heartedly supported. Girls were supposed to cheer, not be challenged,” he wrote.

“She didn’t aspire to leadership, but she was consistently in leadership positions in high school, because people trusted her. There was a genuine friendliness and openness that made her an incredibly approachable person. That speaks to her life and why she was willing and open to do so many things,” said Lyksett in a phone interview.

Lyksett added that while it is sad and notable that she died such a tragic death, Ahrens should be remembered for the powerful qualities that got her to the FBI in the first place.

At the Phoenix FBI field office, a building named in honor of Ahrens, agent Farinacci talked about the tragedy 30 years ago at a Phoenix apartment building, where a suspect in an armored car robbery was being pursued.

“She was involved in the investigation of a fugitive, Kenneth Don Barrett. During the course of effecting an arrest, agent Ahrens was fatally shot by other agents. Basically she was out on surveillance, and special agent Ahrens was mistaken for an armed associate of the fugitive,” said Farinacci.

Ahrens, who was wearing body armor at the time of the incident, was shot three times and died from a head wound the next morning.

More than 100 FBI and other law enforcement agents, including then FBI Director William Webster, attended her funeral in Hudson, Wisc.

Thirst for Adventure

How bold was Ahrens? At age 23, as a YMCA counselor, she guided five young women on a 34- day, 420-mile canoe trip through the wilds of northern Manitoba, Canada. In 1975, they navigated dozens of rapids, and encountered six polar bears. Canadian authorities had warned the group against the challenging journey; possibly because it was dangerous; possibly because there was no male calling the shots. But bears, rapids and the daunting responsibility for the lives of five 18-year-olds never made Ahrens flinch.

“I just remember her as an incredibly strong lady, physically and emotionally. Anything that came up, she was calm. She just had it together,” said Nina Koch, one of the campers.

Ahrens water-skied, snow-skied, camped and canoed. With her formidable athletic skills and thirst for adventures, it was no surprise that after graduating from Utah State University and teaching school for a few years, Ahrens pursued another challenge, also a bold choice for a woman: becoming an FBI agent.

Her entry to the FBI was serendipitous. While teaching high school in Virginia, she took some Reserve Officers’ Training Corps students to the bureau’s facility in Quantico for a chance to check out the physical training course, which she completed as well. An FBI instructor noted her athletic ability and immediately encouraged her to apply to be an agent.

David Reyes was in her class at the FBI Academy.

“She was very nice, open, friendly. She was very approachable to ask questions,” said Reyes, who now practices law in Edina, Minn.

Reyes said Ahrens had started her training a year ahead of him, but was injured and graduated with him in the class of 1985.

“She was already a veteran, helping her classmates anticipate what the instructors wanted from them,” he said.

Marcia Edwards was a high school classmate of Ahrens in Hudson, Wisc.

“She was exceptional. It doesn’t surprise me she went to the FBI. She was just somebody that was not afraid of anything, wasn’t afraid of a challenge. She was very friendly to everybody, very smart, very accomplished,” said Edwards.

Another high school classmate, Sandy Swedish, said Ahrens “was always just gutsy. She was a good friend, a compassionate person; she was not easily intimidated. She stuck up for what she believed in.”

Devastating News

So the news that Ahrens, just 33 years old, had been killed in the line of duty was devastating to all who knew her.

“It wasn’t what you expected to hear just three or four months after graduation,” said Reyes.

Her death in Phoenix was even more horrific when it became clear she had been shot and killed by two fellow agents, who mistook her for the girlfriend of the fugitive they were trying to apprehend.

“It was an overwhelming shock for us, in addition to the sadness of the whole thing,” said Reyes.

It took several weeks before the details of the shooting on the evening of Oct. 4, 1985 were revealed.

“Many [FBI] classmates flew in for the funeral,” said Reyes. “I was a pallbearer. I had never been to a law enforcement funeral before,” he said. “It is a pretty impressive thing. Very moving at the time to see the support.”

Also at the funeral was Christy Buetow, Ahrens’ counselor at YMCA camp in 1970 when Ahrens, then 18, was one of five young women who completed another epic canoe journey, this one a 22-day, 300-mile trip on the Berens River to Winnipeg.

Buetow and the other four women on that trip all attended Ahrens’ funeral. She said they reminisced about hefting and hauling their canoes, and singing as they paddled.

“She really was open and engaging. We’ll keep her in our hearts the rest of our lives,” said Buetow. “Anybody who knew Robin knew she didn’t shrink back from things. Whatever job you asked her to do, she would be putting her all into it.”

Special thanks to The Hudson Area Library in Hudson, Wisc., and to the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities for their help on this story.

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