Nearly 18 years after 9/11, the federal air marshals program is in 'crisis'

A rash of suicides, murder and psychosis have plagued U.S. air marshals' ranks.

September 5, 2019, 1:02 PM

The U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service program has reached what critics describe as an acute crisis point marked by a recent rash of suicides, psychotic episodes, a murder-suicide, a bomb plot, devastating health problems and a pervasive sense of dread and depression among the ranks of the most elite cadre of marksmen and women in the nation, according to a month-long ABC News investigation into the secretive federal agency.

The chaos, dysfunction and despair described by numerous air marshals, as well as sporadic scandals among the marshals themselves, has been long in coming, according to government reports, investigations and congressional hearings, whistleblower testimony, and heated internal correspondence between union, congressional and federal officials with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which oversees the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS).

Despite a 2012 Harvard sleep study recommending strict scheduling practices to protect air marshals' health and years of campaigning by two different air marshals unions, the agency remains without the protection of federally-regulated work schedules under which U.S. pilots, flight attendants, nuclear power plant operators and railroad and bus drivers operate. Those professions' work schedules include mandated periods of rest between duty shifts and limit the number of continuous hours an employee can work on a given shift.

Given the classified nature of the marshals’ work, their troubles as well as their triumphs have often played out largely behind the scenes.

Yet interviews with nearly two dozen current and retired U.S. air marshals, as well as lawmakers, federal officials, psychologists and counselors who treat air marshals and reviews of thousands of pages of documents paint a picture of a once-proud unit grown physically and emotionally burned out after years on the job -- and its members desperate to reach retirement in one piece.

These current and former marshals contend that their supervisors at the agency are at best neglectful and at worst abusive -- silencing whistleblowers and punishing complaints with grueling schedules that disregard the physiological limitations of the human body and endanger the flying public.

“The crisis is here – it’s an epidemic,” Sonya Hightower LaBosco, president of the Air Marshal National Council, a union which represents thousands of U.S. air marshals nationwide, told ABC News.

“If we don’t try and stop this, I am in fear that the next time I turn on a TV it’s going to be an airplane taken down,” she said, explaining her concern that when the critical moment comes when an air marshal is forced to take action, he or she will not be up to the task due to burnout.

PHOTO: A terrorist attack is simulated during a training exercise inside a remake of a commercial Boeing 767 passenger plane at the Federal Air Marshal Service Training Center in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., March 29, 2017.
A terrorist attack is simulated during a training exercise inside a remake of a commercial Boeing 767 passenger plane at the Federal Air Marshal Service Training Center in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., March 29, 2017.
Astrid Riecken/Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

The situation has taken on renewed urgency according to a July letter from Hightower LaBosco and union vice president David Londo to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which investigates allegations of whistleblower retaliation and unsafe working conditions within the Department Homeland Security (DHS), the sprawling federal bureaucracy that oversees the TSA.

The letter accuses leadership at the FAMS and the TSA of “gross mismanagement” and describes “an unprecedented number of psychotic episodes suffered by air marshals, to include a recent murder suicide.”

The TSA in not required to maintain records of the number of suicides among air marshals, but union officials in their letter said the agency was experiencing 3-5 suicides a year of active duty or recently-retired air marshals.

Given its size, that would be equivalent of upward of 30-50 suicides a year in the 36,000-member New York Police Department, the nation’s largest. The NYPD has seen nine suicides of its members this year.

After the third NYPD suicide in June, Commissioner James O'Neill declared the situation a "mental health crisis" and began a summer-long campaign of urging his department’s most troubled officers to get counseling if they feel they need it and increasing the number of counselors available to New York cops.

The air marshal union letter to the OSC notes that just over a year earlier, TSA Administrator David Pekoske received an email from union officials "dated June 9, 2018 entitled ‘Concerned FAMS,’ where he was warned that unless immediate action was taken more tragedies would occur," but failed to react.

“Since that warning the agency has seen 4 suicides, a murder suicide, and its first on duty death,” the letter grimly notes.

The letter is dated July 22, the same day last month that a Washington D.C.-based supervisory air marshal named William Sondervan, 46, was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.

When word of Sondervan’s death surfaced, it was many of his fellow air marshals themselves who were least surprised, Hightower LaBosco told ABC News.

“When we get together, all we can do is shake our heads.”

Suicide is the product of complex psychological trauma, and no one among dozens of interviews for this article sought to blame recent air marshal suicides and other debilitating medical maladies entirely on the job.

But an ABC News review of 14 suicides, attempted suicides, psychotic breakdowns and other incidents dating back to 2005 -- four of which were cited in the union letter -- suggests that in nearly every case prolonged, work-related stress may have played a role.

In response to a detailed list of questions submitted by ABC News, the TSA this week issued a statement defending the FAMS program.

"Federal Air Marshals (FAMs) are a critical and successful part of TSAs layered approach to transportation security," the statement reads. "While FAA regulations, as they relate to airline pilots, do not apply to FAMs, scheduling parameters have been established using industry standards. TSA and the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) continually review and assess how FAMs are deployed, understanding the impact of proper rest while providing world class security to the traveling public. The health and welfare of every man and woman who serves in the FAMS is TSA's highest priority. TSA and FAMS leadership take the care of every FAM very seriously and vigorously dispute any indication otherwise."

TSA officials declined to address specific incidents described in the letter to the OSC and the letter itself, saying that it could become part of an investigation. They declined to address specific incidents in this story, citing personnel and medical privacy restrictions, as well as restrictions on discussing sensitive or classified information.

In congressional testimony in 2015, former TSA administrator Roderick Allison told lawmakers that each air marshal receives "a comprehensive annual physical, health and fitness program, and employee assistance resources," and all have access to medical professionals around the clock. Allison noted that in his first 16 months, he'd personally visited all 22 FAMS field offices and conducted 50 town hall meetings with the rank-and-file flying marshals.

Bomb plot, murder-suicide, psychosis

The work undertaken by federal air marshals – a tiny federal law enforcement agency which grew swiftly after the 9/11 attacks from several dozen to several thousand -- is unique in the world of law enforcement. The job of an air marshal is to blend in with the flying public and remain undetected while scanning for potential threats. Air marshals work undercover, hiding behind cover stories in foreign ports and U.S. cities alike, and spending dozens and dozens of hours a month seated in the confined quarters of planes.

The agency has the highest firearms proficiency rates of any law enforcement agency in the nation and its agents are trained specifically to take out a target with a “double-tap” head shot in a crowded tube made of thin aluminum flying tens of thousands of feet in the air, according to numerous air marshals.

Months of rigorous training -- which includes weeks of firearms training, martial arts and close quarter defensive tactics, as well as studies in aviation jurisdiction and international aviation treaties -- are required just to qualify for the job, according to documents and interviews. Some of this training was featured in a video about FAMS posted to the TSA's verified YouTube channel in 2015.

2018 was a particularly grim year for the small, troubled community of roughly 2,500-3,000 active duty federal air marshals and several hundred more who have retired in recent years.

In February, 38-year-old Broward County, Florida federal air marshal Rene Rios arrived home from work and opened fire at what he thought were a pair of burglars. He was hallucinating, he later testified, and psychotic from alcohol and sleeping pill withdrawal after using the toxic combination for years to meet his job’s demanding schedule, he said in an interview.

The Miramar police officials who responded to Rios' call of burglars in his home did not charge him with any crime, but they got a court order to have his guns taken away from him based on the shooting incident, Rios told ABC News in an interview.

After seeking counseling, a judge ordered his weapons returned to him, Rios said.

“I went to see a psychiatrist who said I was medically-cleared [to get his guns back], and the judge felt that -- given my prior history in law enforcement -- that I went through an episode based on what was happening at work, and he gave me the guns back,” said Rios, who said that he recently received a medical retirement from the agency.

In May, a medically-retired air marshal named Julian Turk was indicted for plotting to blow up his former Newark, N.J. field office. Transcripts of Turk’s conversations with an undercover FBI informant indicate that Turk was intent on revenge against his superiors.

“These [expletive] have gone out of their way to [expletive] with me in the worst possible way,” Turk told the informant, according to a criminal complaint. “And – frankly, I’ve had a [sic] Got damn nuff of it!” He went on to say that “I’ve come up with a plan to get them for what they’ve done to me.” Turk had sought out the informant to teach him how to make and use explosives, and also sought books and manuals on long range rifle shooting, according to the complaint.

Turk later pleaded guilty to one count of interstate communication of threats and was released from prison earlier this year, according to partially-sealed court records. He referred an ABC News request for comment to his attorney, Caroline Cinquanto.

Cinquanto said her client had made a mistake and paid for it.

“I think a lot of the air marshals have a lot of stress,” she said. “There [are] issues with not being able to have any sort of routine schedule, they’re sleep-deprived … and, I don’t think, really appreciated for the service they’re rendering to the country -- and I think sometimes that anxiety and frustration can lead to high levels of depression and an overall sense of hopelessness.”

“I think that [Turk] was reacting to a situation where he could have obviously conducted himself in a more appropriate manner, but I think because of the stress and the pressure – it led him to respond in an inappropriate manner.”

Last October, New Jersey air marshal Mario Vanetta, 41, fatally shot his wife and himself in a murder-suicide that orphaned three children. Last fall saw one air marshal suicide in San Francisco, and another in New Jersey, according to Londo.

The agency's air marshals have also been plagued in recent years by a raft of health problems, union leaders said, including early heart attacks, strokes and deep vein thrombosis (DVT), dangerous blood clots that usually form in the leg or thigh and can become life-threatening if they break loose and reach the lungs.

Last year at least four active air marshals suffered major heart attacks due to suspected blood clots, and a fifth died on duty in the bathroom of an aircraft from a suspected blood clot, according to Londo and Hightower LaBosco. Their letter claims that the service’s medical branch has “substantial evidence” of still more examples of potentially deadly blood clots suffered by active duty air marshals.

Earlier this year, air marshal Frank Galambos suffered a fatal heart attack believed to be caused by a blood clot after leaving his San Francisco field office, Londo said -- and in the past two months, two more air marshals died of heart attacks.

PHOTO: Former U.S. Marine Barry Burch, 52, who said he suffered a heart attack this summer after retiring from 15 years as a federal air marshal, is pictured in uniform in 2016.
Former U.S. Marine Barry Burch, 52, who said he suffered a heart attack this summer after retiring from 15 years as a federal air marshal, is pictured in uniform in 2016.
Barry Burch

Barry Burch, a former U.S. Marine who retired in 2017 after 15 years as an air marshal said he suffered a heart attack in July, at 52.

While he was recovering in the hospital, Burch told ABC News in an interview, “somebody in FAMS texted me and said ‘you’re the fourth [air marshal] this week to have a heart attack.’”

Restricted sleep study

At the heart of the longstanding conflict between federal air marshals and their FAMS and TSA supervisors is a lack of federally-regulated work schedules – which include mandated limits on, for example, hours of continuous work without a break, and a mandated minimum number of hours required on the ground between flights.

The union letter also said that marshals are forced to “cross between 5-10 time zones a week,” and go through “routine” last-minute schedule changes.

The work schedules for pilots, flight attendants, nuclear power plant operators – even bus drivers – are federally-regulated to protect employees’ health, sanity and safety over time.

A critical sleep study conducted on active-duty federal air marshals by doctors from the Harvard University Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital concluded in 2012 that a lack of such mandated restrictions could lead to debilitating medical and psychological problems over time.

After being submitted to the government, the study was labeled SSI -- for Sensitive Security Information – which the TSA describes on its website as information that is sensitive but unclassified and that “if publicly released, would be detrimental to transportation security."

The study, which has since been made public with redactions, concluded that three-quarters of active federal air marshals were sleep-deprived or deficient, a figure that rose to 84% for international flight assignments. The report noted that 19 hours of continuous wakefulness is the physiological equivalent of being legally impaired by alcohol, and 24 hours is the equivalent of legal intoxication.

“Most safety-sensitive occupations have regulations limiting work hours, either by federal statutes or by other governing bodies,” the study warned, above a chart outlining the federally-regulated work hour limits for pilots, flight attendants, nuclear power plant and railroad operators, as well as truck and bus drivers.

“Scheduling practices that respect the basic physiological principles of alertness and performance are vital,” the study concluded.

While the TSA generates air marshals’ schedules based on federal guidelines, a dozen active air marshals at all levels within the agency’s hierarchy who spoke to ABC News unanimously contended that the guidelines are commonly disregarded by scheduling supervisors.

TSA officials declined to detail the scheduling guidelines because they are classified. The officials did not dispute the classification of the sleep study as SSI, but declined to say why it was originally categorized this way.

Air marshals say the guidelines approach isn't working.

"Last week, I had a [flight to the] West Coast on Monday, back [East] on Tuesday, and on Wednesday I’m over in Europe," said one active duty air marshal in an interview. "That would be typical for us and that would never happen if you’re a pilot. We’re on the ground between 16-20 hours [for international flights] and they’re down for an entire extra day."

Londo, the union official, said that air marshals fly about twice as many international trips as U.S. airline pilots each month, and that unlike pilots, there's no maximum on the shift hours an air marshal can fly on any given day.

‘Playing with dynamite’

George Taylor, who joined FAMS along with a wave of military and law enforcement veterans after the 9/11 attacks, said that after becoming president of the air marshal unit of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, he was one of the driving forces behind the sleep study.

“We really early on started seeing this trend of suicides,” he said.

Taylor, 59, a decorated Navy veteran, said that in the rush to rapidly staff up an agency full of elite marksmen and women, the long-term consequences of the new mission were not a primary focus.

“Pretty much from day one there was ... not a lot of thought went into the medical effects of flights on individual,” he told ABC News. “I worked tirelessly to get them to conduct a study. There had never been a study on the medical effects of the air marshals’ schedules.”

“Ultimately the suicide rate became so bad at the air marshals service that I sat down with Bob Bray and literally begged them to conduct a study,” he said, referring to then-director of the air marshal service.

"They did. They stepped up to the plate,” he continued. “They employed Harvard. And as soon as that study was complete and they were getting ready to publish, the DHS immediately classified the study [as SSI] — for one reason,” Taylor argued.

“The study from Harvard had shown the effects of [TSA] flight scheduling,” he continued. “If air marshals wanted to read the study, they had to actually go in and sign a document saying they wouldn’t disclose it to the media.”

The study chronicles a variety of routes to sleep deprivation.

“Chronic sleep deprivation … results in sleep debt,” the study reported. “Loss of as little as 2 hours of sleep per night for 5 to 7 consecutive nights resulted in decrements in neurobehavioral performance comparable to those seen after 24 hours of sleep deprivation.”

Taylor said he was devastated when he learned that the study had been labeled sensitive, and said that he saw the decision as an insult to air marshals.

“Basically, an air marshal has to come out from wherever he’s located and be out of the holster in a second and half and take a headshot, and to ensure when that round hits it’s going to take the individual out,” while avoiding civilian casualties or damage to the aircraft, Taylor asserted.

“The fact is that, once you’ve impaired an individual -- through fatigue, or to the level of the equivalent of being intoxicated - once you have that dynamic, the skill sets to take that head shot, or to perform, deteriorates rapidly. And if you add in abuse of alcohol or sleep drugs? You’re playing with dynamite at that point.”

He said the tedium of relentless flying is broken up every three months by mandatory firearms proficiency testing.

“Every 3 months, even today, the men and women literally – when you go into the range, you are shooting for your job," he said. "If you have a bad day they’re going to remediate you, but if you have as second bad day that’s going to be the end. So every 3 months you go in knowing you have to be on your game and shoot to keep your job.”

Then it’s back into the skies.

“You can’t disclose who you are,” he said. “You’re isolated by yourself on an airplane. You’re just sitting there waiting for that event you hope that it never comes -- but knowing that you have to deal with it if it does. You’re not wearing a uniform, undercover every day. You’re required by the government to lie, you have a cover story, [or] you may have multiple cover stories, depending on the country you’re going to, and even overseas you have to lie about who you are. It’s just absolutely…it’s crazy.”

“I retired after 37 years in the military and I have done some hard things in my life, and also in government, but once I switched to the air marshals, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever done in my entire life. Just the physical, the mental,” he said, pausing. "It’s the toughest job I’ve ever done.”

Taylor retired from FAMS in 2015, but said that he follows closely news within the air marshal community -- and was crushed to learn last month of Sondervan’s death.

“It just literally breaks my heart, because it’s really unnecessary.”

'Falling apart'

Virginia-based psychologist Kathy Christian spent 14 years working at NASA before joining FAMS in 2012, where she trained counselors for the agency’s Critical Incident Response program for four years before she hit what she described as an ethical wall.

“I retired two years early,” Christian told ABC News in her first interview since leaving the agency. “I had to take a hit on my retirement. I couldn’t do it anymore. It was so ugly. It was killing me.”

She, too, described field offices full of air marshals plagued by early heart attacks and strokes, blood clots, as well as drug and alcohol dependency and a palpable, agency-wide despondency.

“There’s a lot of alcohol to sleep -- they drink themselves unconscious,” Christian said.

“They know they’re supposed to stop drinking 10 hours before their shift, but most of them don’t make that cutoff time. The families end up falling apart. These guys are stressed.”

PHOTO: A Federal Aviaition Administration Sky Marshal wields a pistol during a simulated hijacking aboard a retired aircraft at the FAA training facility in Pomona, N.J. on Sept. 26, 2001.
A Federal Aviaition Administration Sky Marshal wields a pistol during a simulated hijacking aboard a retired aircraft at the FAA training facility in Pomona, N.J. on Sept. 26, 2001.
Tim Shaffer/Reuters, FILE

"I’m a psychologist because I want to help people -- and I became part of the leadership that was damaging people, and that was my red line when I left. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I couldn’t be a part of an organization that was harming the people working for them.”

“I don’t know of any other profession -- except maybe medical residents, but they’re not carrying a gun and in danger -- I can’t think of another vocation where you’re carrying a gun, you’re a mess, and you’re chronically sleep-deprived, so -- the suicides, the homicides,” she said, slowly exhaling before beginning again.

“It was ugly. And after being at NASA -- which isn’t perfect but people love working there …I go from there -- heaven on earth in terms of government agencies -- to hell on earth.”

Christian said it grew distressing over time to witness the rapid physical deterioration of such highly-trained professional firearms experts.

“These are, by and large, white middle-aged men -- former law enforcement and or military. These guys that they hired? The originals? These are the best shots they could find -- and now they’re falling apart.”

Another breaking point for Christian came when copies of a training video she had made featuring two active-duty FAMs who were in recovery from alcohol dependency were seized by supervisors from each of the agency’s nearly two dozen field offices and destroyed after one of the men committed suicide.

“I had made this really fantastic video” in 2014, Christian said. “I got two guys who were still FAMs who had gone through recovery to be in it.”

She said that in the video, the two air marshals discussed their drinking problems and their work at recovery after seeking counseling support to combat their dependencies. Christian said the video had been distributed to all the FAMS field offices nationwide as a required training video in late 2014 or early 2015.

After the air marshal in the video -- a military veteran -- committed suicide, “leadership went around and demanded copies of the video from every field office and destroyed them, much to the consternation of the FAMs,” she said.

"They saw this move as gross disrespect of his service in the FAMs and his courageous participation in the video. I spoke to several FAMs who worked at HQ [headquarters] who echoed this sentiment.”

Christian said even now she remains stunned by the confiscation of the video.

“That was their reaction?” Christian wondered aloud of her former superiors.

“And you think to yourself, ‘What’s the psychology behind that move?’"

“I went to the guy’s funeral at Arlington [National Cemetery],” Christian said — recalling that the man’s wife asked her ‘Are they still showing the video to the FAMs?’”

“She was really proud that he was a part of that,” said Christian, the tension rising in her voice.

"I just lied to the wife. I couldn’t say to her, ‘No, we destroyed it. He’s an embarrassment.’”

“What is the mentality in that?”

PHOTO: Psychologist Dr. Kathy Christian said she retired from training counselors at the Federal Air Marshal Service because the agency's leadership had become "an organization that was harming the people working for them."
Psychologist Dr. Kathy Christian said she retired from training counselors at the Federal Air Marshal Service because the agency's leadership had become "an organization that was harming the people working for them."
Dr. Kathy Christian

TSA officials did not dispute the seizure of the training videos, but declined to say why they were recovered from the field offices or whether they were destroyed.

In 2017 testimony before the House Oversight committee, then-DHS Inspector General John Roth described the TSA as an agency overly-focused on protecting its public image.

“We have found that TSA has a history of taking an aggressive approach to restricting information from being made public, especially with respect to a category of information known as sensitive security information," Roth told lawmakers.

"In addition to these inconsistent SSI designations, we have encountered instances in which the TSA redacted information so widely known that redaction bordered on absurd.”

‘Come get my gun’

The accumulation of years of staggered schedules and alleged mismanagement has compounded the existing stress of working as an undercover air marshal, numerous former air marshals told ABC News.

Retired air marshal Kevin Molan said that burnout from his job prompted one of the most harrowing moments of his life.

Molan said he returned home to Boston two years ago on a red-eye overnight flight from the West Coast at the end of a 3-day trip, exhausted, and pulled into his driveway. He took a cold shower and headed outside to trim the hedges.

Suddenly, he recalled, a voice in his head started insisting that he “do a good job because it’s the last job you’re going to do.”

“I couldn’t get that voice out of my head,” he said.

Molan said that he grew hauntingly certain that the only way to still the voice was to go into the house and get one of his guns and kill himself.

“I was manic,” he remembered. “I went from giggling like a schoolboy with a firecracker to crouched down in the driveway between mine and my daughter’s cars and crying.”Eventually, Molan said, he became determined to get a gun, and marched into the house, cold-eyed and hollow inside.

“The only thing saved me – my oldest daughter is now 18 -- she was 16 at time -- she was, amazingly enough, awake at 8:30 in the morning on the couch,” he continued.

“And it slapped me in the face so hard -- that I didn’t want my daughter’s last thought to be seeing me like this. I ran back outside. I knew the call I was going to make was going to end my career. I called one of my supervisors and told her I needed help and they need to come get my gun because I cannot trust myself around it.”

“She’s like, ‘Are you feeling like you’re going to harm yourself?’ And I said, ‘I wouldn’t be calling if I wasn’t.’”

“The super gave me an 800 number – OK, great, but you call a suicide prevention hotline and they’re in Nebraska. So she’s trying to find me local psychologists to talk to and all that’s going through my head is ‘hang up the phone and get the gun.’ I’m one of those guys -- I’ve never in my life contemplated suicide. I always thought it was the coward’s way out, but your brain thinks it’s the only way to handle it.”

“I hung up with the suicide hotline and called my friend who is a [local law enforcement] deputy, and he comes flying down the street, sees me crouched between the cars. I’m crying, and he’s holding me, and I’m going “Dude, go in the house and get my guns. Get them away from me.”

PHOTO: A Federal Air Marshal Service trainee runs up an inflatable evacuation slide.
A Federal Air Marshal Service trainee runs up an inflatable evacuation slide.

Molan told ABC News that he – like many ex-military and law enforcement officers -- had multiple guns locked in safes in different parts of his home. But he said that all he could think about was his duty weapon, locked in a safe on the first floor, where he got dressed for work at odd hours so as not to wake his sleeping wife.

“My duty weapon wasn’t the only weapon I had, but in my mind grabbing my duty weapon was kind of an ‘FU’ to the government. And I’m not blaming the government for where I’m at. I probably should have gotten counseling long ago. I was a [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] border patrol agent,” he said. “I’ve seen some of the worse things a person can do to another human being. But you say, ‘it’s okay, I can handle it -- and you tuck it away.’”

“The lack of sleep, the day-to-day bullshit -- if you go down that path, then it’s going to end one of two ways: sucking on your gun or ending up without a career. I ended up without a career.”

One veteran air marshal, who spoke to ABC News on the condition of anonymity because he said that he is close to retirement and fears TSA retaliation for speaking out publicly, insisted that Molan is not alone.

“There’s 50 other Kevin Molans out there. Let that sink in,” he said.

“There’s 50 other guys out there – right now -- hanging by a thread.”

The Suicide Prevention Center Hotline can be reached at (877) 7-CRISIS or 877-727-4747. Click here for its website.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 1-800-273-8255. Click here for its website.Those who would rather not talk on the phone can text the Crisis Text Line. Text the word “listen” to 741741.

ABC News' Felisa Fine, Brad Martin, Natalie Savits and Carolyn Weddell contributed research to this report.