Cynthia Beebe retired from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in 2014 as a senior special agent, but her recently published (2020) memoir, “Boots in the Ashes,” is the story of a trailblazing crime fighter. At a virtual Levy Lecture on Jan. 26, she captivated the audience as she read from her book and described some of her biggest cases.
Much of the information in her book is taken directly from publicly available records. Those, combined with her sharp recall and eye for detail, make for compelling reading. Whether she was guarding prominent politicians and dignitaries on trips to various cities, collecting crime scene evidence during arson and explosives investigations, interviewing “persons of interest” late into the night and early morning, or analyzing the written rants of a severely mentally ill suspect, Ms. Beebe’s day was varied, intense, and cerebral.
Ms. Beebe recalled how at New Agent Training, she and 23 other agents learned how to use a six-shot Smith and Wesson .38 revolver. “During the two months of firearms training, we shot thousands of rounds. But I had been a competitive athlete since I was a little girl and excelled in hand-eye coordination. I also performed well under pressure, whether it was a big test or a big game. This carried over to the shooting range,” she says. She had shot a few perfect scores during practice rounds, but so had several other agents. The final shooting competition would determine who earned the coveted Top Gun award.
On the day of the competition, no one shot a perfect score. To her surprise, Ms. Beebe’s score was a 98, the highest score of the day. Her marksmanship talents earned her the Top Gun award. She was the first female ATF agent to do so.
Ms. Beebe described how she painstakingly investigated each case by examining evidence gathered at the scene, reviewing timelines, and tirelessly interviewing witnesses. She told how federal, state, and city government law enforcement agencies work together on cases. Ms. Beebe thrived in the ATF and loved the work.
The characters she describes – some with photographs that are included in the book – are a rogue’s gallery of some of the most dangerous people in the world. One or two are personable, charming even but are still cold-blooded killers. Others radiate evil without saying a word.
In one case, Ms. Beebe had evidence from the crime scene, letters from the prime suspect, and notes from two in-person conversations she had had with him. He had “a devastating, undiagnosed mental illness” with a history of violence, and Ms. Beebe knew she would need to interact with him again. But she needed to understand his psychology in order to develop the best strategy. She sought the expertise of agents at the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), also known as the Behavioral Sciences Unit at the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Va. The people in the Behavioral Sciences Unit are behavioral profilers; they study subjects with unusual and dangerous psychological profiles.
Discussing the case file with the profilers, Ms. Beebe said, “They explained his psychology to me in detail, including his paranoia and delusions.” They provided her with ideas and insights, information to understand his “background, motives, and actions,” and how to appeal to his rational side when speaking with him. Those two days with the profilers were groundbreaking for Ms. Beebe. She said, “We had created a plan of attack to push the investigation ahead. I didn’t realize it then, but my time at Quantico became a defining moment in my career. The investigative strategies I had learned in those two intense days would help me many times in the years to come.”
The audience learned how cases are assembled. Details matter. Slowly a picture begins to form about what happened, who did it, and why. All the evidence is presented to an Assistant U.S. Attorney who will decide if there is enough evidence to bring federal charges. Federal cases carry stiffer penalties and are not restricted by state boundaries.
Ms. Beebe’s succinct summaries of occasional political infighting, long stakeouts, and hundred-mile-long road trips to locate a suspect or talk with a shy witness charmed her viewers. Far from tedium, the plethora of details came alive in person and on the page.
Ms. Beebe is warm, funny, personable, and believable — a good type of person to have in law enforcement.
One of the questions asked toward the end of her lecture was her reaction, as a retired federal law enforcement officer, to the insurrection that took place at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
In a nutshell, she said it was all avoidable and never should have happened. At the conclusion of her talk, audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive. One person commented, “I could have listened to her talk all afternoon.” With many more stories to tell, that idea is not out of the question.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.