Pubdate: Thu, 6 Dec 2007
Source: Los Angeles City Beat (CA)
Copyright: 2007 Southland Publishing
Author: Jeffrey Anderson


A Family Searches for Answers in the Strange Death of a DEA Agent 
Known As 'Rubberneck' And 'Buckles'

The grieving father crushes a cigarette into a crowded ashtray on the 
kitchen counter and stares blankly at a tiny TV screen next to the 
sink. It's 11 a.m. on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, exactly one 
year since he last saw his son, Drug Enforcement Administration 
Special Agent Jeffrey T. Bockelkamp, alive. Today the father, thin 
and expressionless, is drinking in the family home in Clarks Summit, 
Pennsylvania, a blue-collar suburb of Scranton.

Down the hall, the mother stands in the middle of a guest room she 
converted to a shrine to her dead son. She is revisiting the prouder, 
happier moments of his life - which ended last January 5 in a men's 
room stall on the 6th Floor of a Glendale office building. Dead by 
his own hand, according to an L.A. County coroner's report, 
Bockelkamp was buried in a closed casket.

The walls of the tiny spare room are cluttered with plaques and 
certificates such as the one commemorating the Southwest Border 
Initiative, an operation launched by the DEA's Los Angeles field 
office in 2003. Scrapbooks and framed photographs show her tall, 
handsome son front and center, often shirtless, his white teeth 
gleaming. "His friends say he was made to be an agent," says the 
mother, a petite woman who talks in clipped sentences.

In one photo, he is holding a trophy fish. In another, he is beaming 
amid a group of agents, clutching an ominously large automatic rifle. 
"He was the only one in his group certified to use that gun," the 
mother says. "No one wanted to touch it. He wouldn't sit behind a 
desk. He liked running and gunning."

Everything Agent Bockelkamp did in life, he did to the maximum, 
friends and family say: scuba dive-master, Kung Fu expert, prolific 
amateur photographer, a lover of women - often juggling several 
relationships at a time. "They were all quite taken with him," Terry 
Bockelkamp says of her son's many girlfriends, a thin smile conveying 
her motherly pride.

In this room, and in the minds and hearts of dozens of people whose 
lives he touched in profound ways, Agent Bockelkamp is an American 
hero: daring, thoughtful, and loyal - perhaps to a fault.

In the Glendale bathroom stall where he died, however, he very likely 
saw his life and a tarnished career flashing before his eyes. The DEA 
suspected him of theft, his family says, yet even if it's true, they 
cannot accept that he could take his own life - not without extreme 
duress or betrayal.

"Well you don't believe it do 'ya?" Terry Bockelkamp recalls Ryan, 
the youngest of her three sons saying, after a somber visit from a 
group of DEA agents last January.

That day, and on several others, DEA agents showed compassion and 
offered to comfort the family, the mother says. Then the 
circumstances surrounding Jeff Bockelkamp's death became a matter of 
secretive investigations, speculation, hurtful innuendo, and 
downright mystery, she says.

Agents insisted on guarding the body through the night at the 
mortuary, the Bockelkamps say, and took photos of car license plates 
at the funeral. Former colleagues told Jeff's hometown friends after 
the services to "meet us at his grave a year from now and we'll tell 
you the full story."

A tribute Web site set up by the family attracts thousands of 
visitors who continue to send e-mails to the long dead agent, known 
to some as "Buckles," to others as "Rubberneck," "Goose," or "Maverick."

"I will never forget the love you shared," reads one. "Always my 
wingman," reads another. "9 months, your monument is now in place," 
reads a recent e-mail from Terry Bockelkamp.

One eerie message on the family's tribute site departs from the 
outpouring of love with a video file of a movie trailer dripping with 
Hollywood intrigue about a federal drug agent whose cover has been 
blown, for a movie called Meth. Someone calling him or herself 
"HIDTA-friend" (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Agency) claims to be 
working behind the scenes to bring light to Jeff's life and death.

Then there's the DEA Watch Web site, which allows for anonymous 
postings that run the gamut from praise for a fallen comrade to harsh 
and, his friends say, unfounded allegations that he was an arrogant 
racist who got what he deserved.

Yet real answers remain painfully scarce, the mother says, and 
compassion has yielded to closed doors and the obfuscation of 
officialdom - even a refusal by her son's closest colleagues to 
return her calls. "Once he was in the ground, it was like he didn't 
exist," she says bitterly. "You know, he could've come home to us, we 
wouldn't have cared how. DEA is saying he stole a watch. He had too 
much pride and honor for that. And even if he did, he didn't invent 
that sort of thing." The mother's enlisted the help of her home 
state's most powerful senator, Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican 
on the Judiciary Committee, to pry for answers to the questions 
tearing at her family.

A Brother's Command Center

Bret Bockelkamp, Jeff's brother, appears in the doorway. Jittery, 
with gelled spiky hair, he looks like an older Robbie Benson, with 
heavy eyebrows and dark eyes that suggest he rarely sleeps these 
days. An electrician like his father, Bret has moved back in with his 
parents and established a command center in the basement where he 
lives, with his dog Harley, wholly devoted to unraveling the 
circumstances of his brother's death.

Besieged by phone calls from reporters, tipsters, and government 
lawyers he claims posed as journalists, Bret has built a virtual 
bunker: the house is wired with security cameras; he is building a 
database to store information he has gathered about his brother's 
activities as an agent; a Santa Monica phone number allows DEA agents 
to call him in Pennsylvania without being detected by the agency, 
which has forbidden contact with the family.

His work is solitary, he says. "I keep a lot of this from my parents. 
It's too much for my dad to handle. Once in a while he'll burst out 
and start yelling something out of anger. It's embarrassing."

In possession of his brother's work and home computers, cell phone, 
and "black book" - a logbook of investigations - Bret says he has 
talked to colleagues, former informants, undercover agents in Mexico, 
and ex-girlfriends of his brother's. He even has records dating back 
to when his brother was a patrol officer in Maryland.

"It's as if Jeff is still alive," Bret says. "His cell phone rings 
and people who didn't even know he was dead are calling him."

The source of Bret's obsession - and the family's grief - is rooted 
in more than loss. They feel a deeper, darker side to Jeff's death - 
a sense stoked by the e-mails and occasional anonymous phone calls 
Bret says he receives.

"People offered me money to talk to them about what we know," Bret 
says. He's also received calls from the Washington Times, USA Today, 
and even an L.A. Times reporter who suggested the family find a 
personal injury lawyer who could perhaps knock down some of the walls 
of secrecy; the Times reporter denies it. "We have received anonymous 
calls warning us not to push too hard for answers, that we can't 
handle what we're getting into," Bret says.

Motivated by his own research, the interest from the media and all 
sorts of gadflies and cranks, not to mention the nagging questions 
that hover over his brother's death, Bret has become convinced that 
his brother was in the middle of numerous dangerous scenarios that 
could have placed him in jeopardy - whether the job was pushing him 
to the edge, or he was making others nervous. "I know he was working 
undercover on the Mexican Mafia."

Now Bret also insists his brother was a scapegoat whose colleagues 
turned on him in a secretive agency where double, sometimes triple, 
lives lead to entangled relationships, misdeeds, confusion, and 
severe mental stress. "There was a lot of relationship stuff going on 
in his office," Bret says, alluding to an affair he believes his 
brother was having with a colleague, whose husband found out. "Some 
sort of power trip - they all wanted to get the girls."

Someone - Bret will not say whom - has left him with the impression 
that two DEA agents in L.A. have overseas bank accounts that have 
raised eyebrows.

Worse, the family has learned that the bullet that took their son 
came from a gun he possibly should not have been carrying. The family 
has consulted lawyers, Bret says, and is considering a $3-million, 
wrongful-death lawsuit against the DEA and the U.S. Department of Justice.

"From Day One, there are inconsistent statements, contradictions, and 
bizarre incidents," Bret says. "I don't care if he did right or 
wrong, I want the whole truth to come out. I don't feel as if it's 
100 percent suicide. There is something else going on. I constantly 
am questioning, is this normal?"

"Nothing is ordinary about an agent's suicide," DEA spokesman Jose 
Martinez in the L.A. field office says, referring a reporter to DEA 
headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the Department of Justice's 
Office of the Inspector General. "I think OIG is still investigating."

The DEA in Washington shared no information, however. "We have no 
comment whatsoever," OIG spokeswoman Cynthia Schnedar says. Sen. 
Specter's staff has been in touch with the family, but it's unclear 
whether the senator will be piercing the veil of secrecy surrounding the case.

The matter remains under investigation, says a Glendale police 
spokeswoman, refusing to release the incident report of Bockelkamp's 
death at 330 North Brand Blvd.

A few official details are contained in an L.A. County coroner's 
report: "The decedent, a 30-year-old DEA Agent, was the subject of an 
Internal Affairs investigation. During a break in the meeting on 
January 5, 2007, at about 12:37 p.m. the decedent stepped into the 
restroom. An IRS employee was washing his hands at the sink when he 
suddenly heard a gunshot and heard the decedent collapse in a stall. 
The man went for help and 911 was called. Glendale Police Sergeant 
Bracken arrived and determined death at 12:45 p.m. A police officer 
kicked the Glock semiautomatic pistol away from the decedent's side."

The coroner ruled it a suicide. Other details from the report: 
Bockelkamp, who had an American flag tattoo on his left hip, used a 
hollow point bullet and fired one shot to his right temple with a 
backup pistol, leaving a five-foot stream of blood running to a drain 
on the bathroom floor.

The Bockelkamps want to know how an otherwise exemplary agent under 
suspicion of wrongdoing, in the middle of an internal affairs 
investigation, could carry a backup weapon into a men's room stall, unattended.

"He gave his heart and soul to the DEA," his mother says. "I want 
them to come to the house with his badge and answer some questions. 
As far as I'm concerned, the DEA killed him. His job killed him. He 
made it his life. Something is not right. As a mother, I just know it."

Seasoned law enforcers are not taken by such talk. "It's not unusual 
to be around millions of dollars of dope and cash," says a veteran 
drug cop who often works with DEA agents. "To most guys it's just a 
job, to log it into evidence and move on. But if a guy can't resist 
temptation, or if he's a kleptomaniac, well, that can happen."

Says another, without any hint of emotion, "The guy shouldn't have been dirty."

Sources who talked to CityBeat on condition of anonymity verify what 
Terry Bockelkamp claims the DEA is telling her family: that Jeff 
Bockelkamp stole an expensive watch during a search and seizure of 
drug contraband. Some say he was under suspicion for doing it more 
than once. But that possibility is more than the Bockelkamps can 
handle right now.

The "Cocky" Agent

Bret Bockelkamp wants to venture out into a freezing cold November 
day in Clarks Summit and talk to Jeff's friends about his brother's 
legacy. He refuses to wear a coat. He's edgy and he says he cannot 
sleep for thinking of his brother. Asked if he has consulted with a 
grief counselor he snaps, "No, I don't want to talk about it. I'm OK 
with Jeff's death. I'm mad at the DEA, and the agents, for not giving 
us answers."

His brother's death has affected him deeply, Bret says. He no longer 
enjoys his hobbies, such as motorcycling, or riding four-wheel 
recreational vehicles, and he moved out of his townhouse and stopped 
working as an electrician. He says he made a lot of money doing that, 
and by registering domain names and then brokering them on the open 
market, "So I'm doing pretty well financially."

Still, the lack of sleep, the constant computer research, the phone 
calls and e-mails from around the world, and the poring over 
documents he claims to have obtained from the OIG - documents, he 
says, that implicate his brother as a suspected thief, but which also 
show DEA agents offering conflicting accounts during their interviews 
with investigators - fills his head with scenarios that are overwhelming.

"I'm exhausted but I'm awake all the time," he says. "Sometimes I 
feel like I'm gonna explode."

On a drive around town to visit friends who can attest to Jeff's good 
character, Bret grows frustrated that no one is home. Even the 
funeral home, where he says DEA agents insulted the director by 
insisting on camping out all night guarding Jeff's coffin, is vacant 
with the door unlocked on this Saturday before Thanksgiving.

Finally he calls his mother and tells her to call some people to see 
if they are home. She obliges, and soon Bret is knocking at the door 
of Jeff Jenkins and his wife Chryssa, who agree to sit down to talk 
about Jeff Bockelkamp, who started his police career with Jenkins at 
the Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Department.

Jenkins rented a U-Haul with Bockelkamp back in 2000 and headed off 
to the police academy with him. He and his wife shared a house with 
Bockelkamp. They were so close, "It was like having two husbands," 
Chryssa says. "I can't describe the kind of guy he was. Even after we 
moved away, and I had my first baby, and I got overwhelmed at times, 
I could call him and talk. He mailed me a gift certificate for a 
manicure and a massage, with a note saying 'You deserve it.'"

The couple shares fond memories about what a character Jeff was. 
"Modest is not a word I would use," Chryssa says, "but not boastful." 
He was cocky, her husband recalls, "but not in that way that made you 
want to punch him in the mouth." A few other traits stick out, 
Jenkins says: "He had that year-round tan, and I swear when he came 
back home he had lasered the hair off his arms and bleached his teeth.

"He was proud of himself but he couldn't talk about his work."

Jenkins, retired now from law enforcement, confirms that a lack of 
closure hovers over his friend's death. "Everyone reads that DEA 
Watch web site, mostly we're waiting for someone to man up with some 
answers." Asked whether he accepts what the family has been told by 
the DEA he replies, "I can't say either way. Some of it I believe, 
some of it I can't." As a former cop, Jenkins senses the limitations 
of what Bret is trying to accomplish. "I know how law enforcement is. 
You're gonna get what you're gonna get. There'll be a last report, 
and people will believe it, or not. With suicide, you never have all 
the answers."

Even those who were with Bockelkamp shortly before his death have a 
hard time fathoming what he did - and was suspected of doing.

'I Will Call You. You're Hot.'

One day last fall, a third-grade teacher from Torrance named Cheryl 
Tabellion arrives at the Del Amo Mall to talk about her experience 
with Bockelkamp, her former lover and friend, who lived in a house 
with several agents in nearby Manhattan Beach. Tall, fit, and tan in 
a short white dress, Tabellion, in her mid-40's, is somewhat 
embarrassed at first to discuss her relationship with the fallen 
agent, because of their age difference.

She recalls their first encounter, at a bar in Redondo Beach called 
The Grog. "Jeff made his presence known right away," she says 
blushing. "He grabbed my hips on his way to the bathroom and I 
thought, 'Oh, no one's done that to me in a while.'" Then he came up 
to me later with this big smile and we connected right away. He had 
the greatest smile, and he could make you feel like you were the only 
one in the room."

Bockelkamp drank Red Bull and vodka. "He gave me his DEA card with 
his cell phone number and we talked about his work - nothing 
specific, but he was really passionate about what he did. He said 
he'd call me later because he was going to Panama the next day. Of 
course I found out much later he really went to see an old 
girlfriend. But he was really sweet. I remember he text-messaged me 
later that night when we first met with something like, 'I will call 
you ... you're hot.' I didn't know how to respond to a text like that."

The two dated, if you could call it that, Tabellion says. "It was 
hard to see him. He was not very available. He didn't want to 
disappoint me by canceling plans, so there weren't really any plans 
to go out or anything." Weekends were reserved for Bockelkamp getting 
together with his work friends, she says. He called them his second 
family. During the week, the two would get together, usually at his 
house, sit by the fire, drink wine, and chat. "He'd talk for three 
hours straight."

In the middle of the night she could hear DEA agents getting up to go 
to work, Tabellion recalls. "But I never socialized with them," she 
says. Just about every night she spent with Bockelkamp, she says, 
she'd stay with him in his room and then return home before sunrise.

Bockelkamp loved Jessica Alba action movies and the band Snow Patrol, 
Tabellion says. He had great legs, with a serious tan line. "I think 
he might have gone to a tanning salon," she says. "And he always wore 
the same thing: shorts and a button-down shirt, and a baseball cap, 
even when he was indoors. He was really good looking. My friends told 
me to stop seeing him, but I couldn't not see him."

His talk of work was seductive, Tabellion says. He showed off his 
guns. "He kept this one machine gun under his bed. He called it 
Charlene or something. I liked hearing about his work. He liked 
talking about it. It was interesting, and exciting."

One time, Tabellion says, blushing again, when the couple was making 
out in the parking lot of some bar, Bockelkamp's gun, hidden in one 
of his many holsters, was poking her, "so he just took it out and put 
it on the hood of the car. Jeff was like that, so spontaneous."

Though she felt herself falling for him, Tabellion knew there would 
never be anything lasting. "He knew what he wanted to do with his 
life. He made it clear that his work was his life and his priority. 
So our time together became something fun that I enjoyed while it lasted."

The last time she saw Bockelkamp was a week before he died. It was 
the first time he stayed at her place. "He talked on the phone with 
someone that night about going to Panama. I could tell he was excited 
and I sensed he'd be leaving. He was one of five candidates for this 
job that he really wanted. He was worried that someone who spoke 
Spanish was going to get it.

"It would be easier to hear that he died in the line of duty," she 
says, choking up. "He was so nice and polite, and so positive about 
life. Other guys just don't measure up. He had his life all planned 
out. He was so in control. [Suicide] just isn't him."

Unbearable Heartache

Bret Bockelkamp stops at a Subway in Green Ridge, north of Scranton, 
for a late afternoon sandwich. He whips out a money clip with the 
initials JTB - a memento of his brother's. The cold doesn't seem to 
bother him in nothing but jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt, as he 
talks constantly about his brother, and about how upsetting it is 
that the DEA won't come to the house and face the family with some 
hard answers.

"This isn't like losing a friend," he says. "I've lost a brother. 
Someone who was fine one day, and gone the next. I could see if he 
had problems, but he didn't. He fought to keep crime off the streets. 
He should be honored the way he was. It's not like he worked at Burger King."

One DEA agent actually has come to visit the Bockelkamps, Bret 
recalls, an agent named Billy Matthews. This was after Bret says he 
received a 400-page report from the OIG with voluminous testimony and 
names redacted that leads to one conclusion - a conclusion that Bret 
is not satisfied with: "He stole a watch in 2005, they say. Bunch of 
bullshit. Then why did they wait more than two years to issue a 
report? They never talked to us about it when he was alive. Then he 
dies and they show up at the funeral taking pictures of people's 
license plates?

"I'd like to see some people go to jail for the things the DEA is 
accusing my brother of. But nothing seems to be happening."

Matthews apparently did not realize the family had received such a 
report, Bret says. "He started in with this story that was just like 
all the other bullshit and I pulled out the report and dropped it on 
the table in front of him. He took one look at it and got up and 
left. I smelled something foul and I think he shit his pants." 
Matthews did not return CityBeat's calls for comment.

Bret claims that through his own research, using his brother's log 
book and other work-related material, he can take the redacted report 
and find statements by DEA agents that are demonstrably inconsistent 
if not false. He says the family's lawyers have told him there might 
be grounds for an investigation into the investigation of his 
brother's death. John Rubiner, an attorney at Bird Marella, who 
represents the family, would not comment.

Bret also claims that a Glendale police report of the shooting 
incident last January does not match the findings in the OIG report 
of his brother's death. He says there were no fingerprints on the gun 
that claimed his brother's life, and no gunshot residue on his brother's hand.

Again, Glendale police would not discuss the case. And the L.A. 
coroner's report indicates that it was unclear at the time of autopsy 
whether anyone had touched Bockelkamp's hand before a residue test 
was conducted.

However, Captain Ed Winter of the L.A. coroner's office says no one 
has questioned the conclusions of the autopsy on a case that he 
personally rolled out on, and that he "was pretty sure" a gunshot 
residue test on Bockelkamp's hand was positive.

As to why officials from L.A. to Washington, D.C., are so unwilling 
to discuss Jeff Bockelkamp's death, one L.A. area official with 
familiarity of the matter says this: "Suppose the DEA catches a guy 
dirty, and they bring him in for an interview, and they lock one gun 
up but he has another that they don't know about. Then he goes to the 
restroom and shoots himself. Maybe they're afraid the family will 
claim the agency pushed the guy over the edge."

Maybe that's all there is to it, but Bret Bockelkamp doesn't think 
so. He wants the government to reverse the coroner's findings of a 
suicide, in light of what he claims are inconclusive tests for 
fingerprints and gunshot residue, "so my family can get the full 
benefits they are entitled to resulting from my brother's death."

Which is not likely, says Captain Winter. "Unless someone can 
convince me otherwise, the final determination stands. And no one has 
asked me to revisit the case. If we call it suicide and [law 
enforcers] consider it a homicide, fine, every now and then we 
disagree. But if we do disagree, it's almost always the other way around."

To Bret Bockelkamp, however, even more is at stake than a coroner's 
finding, or the benefits he believes are due his grieving family. 
It's a matter of honor and pride, he says, growing increasingly 
agitated with persistent questions about his various theories. "As 
far as I'm concerned, my brother came in voluntarily to that 
interview and was acting in the line of duty. Did you know he had a 
small computer file with him? He was ready to give them anything they 
asked for. And now he's dead."

Yet Bret is unable or unwilling to provide hard evidence to back up 
his theory, which seems to be that his brother was a suspected thief 
in a den of thieves who ratted him out. "This is about Jeff!" he 
shouts, visibly shaking now, either from the cold, the grief, or the 
anger. "I want to go home. Take me home!" He says he feels betrayed, 
that the day was not supposed to go this way.

Back at the Bockelkamp residence, with the winter sky darkening over 
Clarks Summit, Bret disappears inside the house, stewing about being 
questioned on his theories. Perhaps his mother could shed light on 
them. But she will not come to the door. Finally, after several 
minutes and on the third ring of the doorbell, Bret charges out on 
the porch and stops just short of a physical altercation.

He turns and yells for his mother. Instead, his father appears out of 
the kitchen into the front doorway. He is red-faced and pointing his 
finger at a reporter looking for answers to some of the same 
questions that have shattered this family. "No!" Frank Bockelkamp 
shouts, as if he were yelling at a dog. "No!" 
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