December 20, 2003
Missing U.S. Border Patrol Agent Found Dead in Colorado River
Officer Down: Border Patrol Agent James Epling - [Yuma, Arizona]
BY LOUIE VILLALOBOS, The Yuma Sun
Agent James Epling was still wearing his U.S. Border Patrol hat when dive teams spotted him under water Friday night.
With that ended a 72-hour search and rescue effort that began when he went missing Tuesday night.
Epling, 24, was found 50 feet south of a peninsula in the Colorado River approximately 200 yards from where agents believe he disappeared.
Epling was found at 7:15 p.m., with the help of an underwater camera that spotted him in the most difficult part of the river that provided dive teams with only 6 to 12 inches of visibility, said Joe Brigman, spokesman for the Yuma sector of the Border Patrol.
"Dive teams had been methodically searching that area," Brigman said. "As the search continued, they were able to find Agent Epling."
Epling was wearing his U.S. Border Patrol hat, jacket and gun belt, agents at the scene said.
Federal Bureau of Investigation agents now have control of both Epling’s body and the investigation of the initial incident, which took place Tuesday night when Epling was last seen running south down the California side of the river in a foot pursuit of four suspected illegal aliens.
Prior to the chase, Epling and additional agents in the area successfully pulled a female Chinese national out of the river.
Also on that night, agents took into custody four illegal aliens, three of which were Chinese citizens, the patrol has said. The fourth was a Mexican national believed to be a smuggler, sources have told The Sun.
On Thursday evening, Michael Nicley, Chief Patrol Agent in charge of the Yuma sector, said if the Mexican national is identified as the smuggler, he could face charges in connection to Epling’s death because the death occurred during the commission of alien smuggling, a federal felony.
When Epling was found, more than three days of intensive searching of both the Colorado River and the surrounding area, including Mexico, came to a somber end.
"Unfortunately, the worst possible scenario has played out," Brigman said.
Epling was a father of three whose wife is pregnant with their fourth child. He had been in the Border Patrol for less than one year. Agents at the scene throughout the week repeated that Epling had all the makings of a great U.S. Border Patrol agent and that he was generally a great guy to work with.
Prior to the find, agents had spent the previous day cutting through the thick brush around the river, searching both sides of the river on foot and continuing to bring in additional resources.
On Friday alone, 44 Marine Corps Air Station Yuma personnel assisted in the search and two additional dive teams were brought in by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Also, BORSTAR agents from the San Diego sector of the Border Patrol were dispatched to lend support, agents said.
On the Mexican side, at least five different law enforcement agencies were patrolling the area of the Reforma Canal in support of the U.S. search, agents said.
Immediately after the massive search effort began Tuesday night, agents vowed to continue to search until Epling was located. Agents stayed true to their word at approximately 10 p.m. Friday when they covered Epling with a U.S. flag and saluted their fallen agent.