Boots in the Ashes

Busting Bombers, Arsonists and Outlaws as a Trailblazing Female ATF Agent


By Cynthia Beebe

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The thrilling career of ATF agent Cynthia Beebe is told through the lens of six-high profile cases involving bombings, arson, and the Hell’s Angels.

Boots in the Ashes is the memoir of Cynthia Beebe’s groundbreaking career as one of the first women special agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, (ATF). A smart and independent girl growing up in suburban Chicago, she unexpectedly became one of the first women to hunt down violent criminals for the federal government.

As a special agent for 27 years, Beebe gives the reader first-hand knowledge of the human capacity for evil. She tells the story of how, as a young woman, she overcame many obstacles on her journey through the treacherous world of illegal guns, gangs, and bombs. She battled conflicts both on the streets and within ATF. But Beebe learned how to thrive in the ultra-masculine world of violent crime and those whose job it is to stop it.

Beebe tells her story through the lens of six major cases that read like crime fiction: four bombings, one arson fire and a massive roundup of the Hell’s Angels on the West Coast. She also shares riveting never before revealed trial testimonies, including killers, bombers, arsonists, victims, witnesses and judges.


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THIS MEMOIR is about my career and is based heavily on public information. I reviewed more than seven thousand pages of trial transcripts, including the complete record of each of the trials against Arthur Ashby, Loren Bellrichard, and Richard Kagan. A transcript of the William Lenius trial could not be found in court files. I read appellate rulings, judicial sentences, and court records for every case where they were available. Evidence submitted during a trial, including photographs, laboratory reports, and documents, becomes part of the court record.

Every case I chronicle in detail received extensive media coverage, including articles in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Ladies Home Journal, and others. Most of the investigations were also covered by television news, including ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and CNN, as well as the Phil Donahue Show and 48 Hours. I also reviewed professional law enforcement publications and personal journals.

Some pseudonyms have been used, including many of the individuals identified by first name only. Some dialogue has been recreated and some identifying details have been changed.

The treasure trove of public source materials allowed me to write about my cases in depth and with precision. I have included actual trial testimony from federal agents, forensic experts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims, witnesses, judges, bombers, arsonists, and outlaws.


RON PETKUS WAS AS BAD A MAN as I ever investigated as an ATF agent. He was an enforcer for the Hell’s Henchmen Outlaw Motorcycle Club, now a part of the Hells Angels. He told me on his deathbed in prison that he had murdered forty-six people. Bloodshed and violence were his profession, and he was good at it.

Petkus had two nicknames. He was tagged with “Stupid” when he shot himself in the butt with a shotgun as a young man. He always denied it to me, but that was the story. His other nickname, the one I saw provoke not fear but terror, was “Big Ron.” And Big Ron was laughing uncontrollably in the backseat of my car.

In the spring of 1994, I worked with a team of ATF agents to arrest Ron Petkus on charges of attempted murder in the first degree, arson, and possession of an incendiary device. Petkus and another Hell’s Henchman, Melon, had blown up a car, intending to murder the wife of a prominent Chicago criminal defense attorney, Richard Kagan. Kagan had hired Petkus to kill his wife, Margaret, because she was contesting their divorce and delaying his marriage to his younger girlfriend.

Petkus and Melon had followed Margaret Kagan for weeks trying to shoot her with a silenced .25 caliber pistol but neither one could get a clear shot. So Petkus decided to blow up her car instead. He built a powerful bomb out of sweating, degraded dynamite, which has a yellowish, waxy look to it and makes the weapon highly unstable. A booby trap–triggering mechanism would detonate the explosive device when the car moved.

When the fateful day came, the two men, who knew where Margaret would be, saw her park her car in a train station parking lot. After they watched her depart on her train, they attached the deadly device underneath her sedan, unobserved. When she returned to her vehicle later that day, Margaret put the car in reverse and touched the accelerator. The resulting explosion was massive, destroying her heavy automobile and shooting shrapnel, flames, and choking smoke through the sedan. Remarkably, Margaret Kagan survived the devastating blast almost unscathed.

As the lead investigator, I worked for months with an excellent team to build the case against Richard Kagan, Ronald Petkus, and Melon. While I had no doubt Richard Kagan was ultimately responsible for the attempted murder of his wife, I had to prove it. And I needed Petkus’s cooperation to make the case against Kagan airtight. After several months of hard work, we obtained enough evidence to get an arrest warrant for Ron Petkus.

We arrested Petkus on a beautiful April afternoon, just a few minutes after he drove away from the Hell’s Henchmen’s clubhouse in Chicago. He was in the passenger seat of a compact white pickup truck that was driving through a neighborhood of brick houses and small businesses on the near southwest side of Chicago. I was in the passenger seat of the car following right behind him, with at least a dozen additional units right behind us. I couldn’t help laughing as we tailed Petkus because he was so huge that the little white truck leaned heavily to his side as they sped along—truly a Big Ron.

We came to a four-way stop at a quiet intersection. I decided to arrest him there rather than risk them getting to a busy street and radioed to my team that we were taking him down now. We peeled out into the intersection and pulled in front of the truck, boxing him in with cop cars in front and back. I jumped out of my car, sprinted to Petkus, and stuck my black .40 caliber pistol in his face through the lowered front window of his pickup. I grabbed him by his T-shirt and yelled, “Police! Get out of the car!” He opened the door without hesitation, and I dragged him facedown onto the ground. Agents swarmed around us. I told Petkus he was under arrest for attempted murder in the first degree while I worked to cuff him. True to his name, he was so big I needed three sets of handcuffs to fasten his hands behind his massive back. I searched him and pulled a loaded six-shot .38 caliber revolver from the back right-hand pocket of his jeans.

Together with several other agents, I was able to bring Petkus to his feet, walk him over to my government sedan, and secure him in the backseat. I got into the front seat and turned to look at him. I told him who I was and asked him about the revolver in his back pocket. He calmly told me that if he’d known I was a cop, he would have shot me.

“No, you wouldn’t,” I told him, “because I would have shot you first.”

To my surprise, Petkus burst out laughing. I knew he meant what he said, and he knew I meant what I said. And based on our mutual willingness to shoot each other, we built a highly productive professional relationship.

In my twenty-seven years as a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, I investigated many sinister bad guys. Ronald Petkus and Richard Kagan are just one story out of many that shaped my unusual career.

In 1987, I was one of the first women hired as an ATF special agent. Soon after, and unexpectedly, I became the first woman to earn the coveted “Top Gun” award for being the best shot in my class at the ATF Academy. I fought to find my way as a new agent in an office that had coldly driven out the first female agent shortly before I arrived. Not long after, I had to come to terms with my mother’s terminal brain cancer. As a young agent I worked with behavioral profilers at Quantico’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, who convinced me to stick to my guns and changed my career.

I investigated a number of high-profile bombings and arsons, several of which resulted in lengthy trials. I extracted confessions from deadly serial bombers and hunted suspects on the National Church Arson Task Force. I worked Secret Service details, protecting Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, and spent weeks protecting foreign diplomats at the United Nations in New York City.

I arrested Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples in the heart of Chicago’s most desperate neighborhoods. And at a time when rivalries and turf wars could cripple major investigations, I willingly worked with outside agencies. Many years later, I came out on top in a bureaucratic power struggle. And despite my dedication to a demanding career, I went on to adopt a little boy from Russia as a forty-four-year-old single mother.

I thrived in a violent world of murderers, gangsters, and bombers. I learned why people shoot, burn, and blow up each other. I’ve seen terrible things—a father’s body torn open by shrapnel from a pipe bomb, a mother’s terror for the life of her young teenage son, and the bleakness of our inner cities. I know how and why people buy and sell guns and drugs. I know they commit crimes for money, power, sex, and revenge. I can find them, arrest them, and help prosecute them.

As a girl and young woman, I didn’t aspire to this career. It wasn’t even an option when I was growing up. But beginning in the 1970s, new federal laws created opportunities for girls and women that we never thought would be possible. Doors were opened for the first time, and I didn’t walk through—I ran through them full speed ahead. I never could have foreseen what awaited me on the other side.



WE DIDN’T LOCK OUR FRONT DOORS when I was growing up in suburban Chicago in the 1960s. Kindergartners walked to school down the street and across the park without a second thought. After school we just showed up at our friends’ houses and rang the front doorbell, expecting to be invited in to play. On summer nights, all the kids on the street gathered in the middle of the block outside my house, ready to play catch or tag.

I grew up in a family of four: my mom, dad, older brother, and me. My mom happily stayed at home at a time when women weren’t considered lucky to be able to do so. She was a musical, artistic, outgoing woman who loved to cook and would have loved to raise five or six children. My mom and grandmothers taught us politeness as a cardinal virtue. My dad was a hardworking, successful civil engineer who wore a suit and tie every day and took the train to his office in downtown Chicago. He rewarded us for achievement, but no matter what, every night when he came home from work he gave us each a small pack of gum.

My brother was two years older than me and liked to read and build airplane models. He had a paper route for a year or two, and every morning I’d help him roll the newspapers and load them in the red wagon. Sometimes I would help deliver them too. We all loved the family dog, a tricolor Shetland sheepdog named Tammy.

Along with the Chicago Bears and Cubs, our one family television was often tuned to The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and Superman. All of the good guys on TV were men. Sometimes there was a female sidekick, like Dale Evans, who rode an impressive horse, but she was rarely in on the action. So even though the good guys had all the fun—galloping into the sunset, shooting the bad guys, and flying through the air—being a good guy wasn’t considered a realistic future for a girl.

Lassie was the one exception to the “good guys are always boys” rule. Lassie was on every Sunday night, and I never missed the show about the beautiful collie and her boy, Timmy. I loved Lassie the most. I felt terrible when something bad happened to her and she whimpered or limped around. God forbid mean guys fought with Lassie or kidnapped her. I had to run upstairs and tell my mom if that happened.

But few things made me happier than when Lassie would come flying in at the end of the show, tail wagging and barking madly, to save Timmy from whatever mishap had befallen him. Once Lassie had rescued Timmy there would be lots of laughter, dog petting, and joy. There were close-ups showing Lassie’s gorgeous fur and the magnificent blaze on her muzzle. She would rest her paw on Timmy’s arm and everyone would laugh some more. Then Lassie, Timmy, and his parents would return to their farm to rest before Timmy fell down a well again the next week.

There were two problems with Lassie being the only role model for a girl who wanted to grow up to be a good guy. First, she was a dog. Second, she was actually a he. Lassie was played by a boy dog. Apparently the producers just wanted him to be a girl dog for the show, and he was furry enough to make it work.

I was already as tough as I would ever be by the time I was a fourth-grader at Franklin School in Park Ridge, Illinois. I was the only girl in a neighborhood full of boys, and we played and played. In the summer we’d be outside all day, breaking up our games only when our moms called us to come home for dinner. I spent so much time in the sun that my skin burned until it peeled. We loved to play baseball, kick the can, and red light/green light, even as the sun set and the sky darkened.

In the winter we’d spend all afternoon building lopsided snow forts and having snowball fights, followed by hot chocolate and cookies courtesy of one of our moms. My best friend, Teddy, lived across the street. We played hockey in the basement of his house, using a rolled-up magazine for a stick and a tennis ball for a puck. We played on our hands and knees until our knees bled, then we played some more, trying to whack the ball past the goal line between two pieces of furniture.

In the fall, we all played sandlot tackle football in our jeans and sweatshirts. One afternoon, ten or twelve of us were playing in the park, a welcoming place where green fields beckoned kids to play and oak trees abounded. In the center of the park one mighty oak stood alone, standing sentinel over every living thing. Our yellow-brick elementary school stood in the northwest corner reminding us that math, science, and English awaited us the next day. Norman Rockwell would have struggled to do justice to our idyllic park.

On the football field we all played both defense and offense, and each of us had a chance to play quarterback. We would draw plays up in the palm of our hand, diagramming the route each receiver should take, while the defense would count “one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi” before being allowed to rush in and chase the quarterback around.

One afternoon a dozen of us were in the middle of a football game when I abruptly found myself flat on my back, looking up at the blue sky, with two boys kneeling beside me. Pete was the best athlete, biggest kid, and unquestioned leader of our crowd, and I vaguely heard him asking me if I was okay. Brett was a little jerk from down the street who sometimes played with us but wasn’t one of our core group. I heard Brett saying furiously, “Beebe, you’re such a faker.” I’d been knocked out when I tackled the running back.

I looked over, and the rest of the kids were crowded around the running back, bent over with a bloody nose. Back then no one gave a thought to concussions or bloody noses or anything less than a broken bone. I got up, and we played on, including the kid with the bloody nose. Brett was still grousing about me as the game went on, when I was surprised to hear Pete shut him up. He told everyone on the field, “Beebe is the toughest one of all of us.” The big dog had spoken. If Pete said I was the toughest, then I was the toughest.

In the summer of 1971, I finished sixth grade. I was going to start junior high school, and my brother was going to be a freshman in high school. My parents decided that if we were ever going to move to a bigger house in a different town, this was the time. I was totally opposed to this incredibly bad idea, since our three-bedroom house seemed big enough to me and I desperately wanted to stay with my friends. I was outvoted. I was crushed when we moved about twenty minutes away to a four-bedroom house in Glenview. I cried at having to leave my friends, particularly my beloved Teddy, the boy across the street I had played with almost every day of my life.

Despite my many tears and protestations, I soon made lots of friends and thrived in my new hometown. In 1972, I was a good student athlete entering eighth grade when my life was changed forever, although I was barely aware of it. I was interested in politics and read the papers daily, but I didn’t foresee the monumental change in our country that was brought about by the passage of Title IX. President Nixon signed the comprehensive federal civil rights law that summer, and it fundamentally altered the lives of all women and girls and, by extension, all men and boys.

Title IX stated in one sentence that all federally funded schools must provide equal opportunities for girls and women in educational programs. The law’s impact rocketed through the world of girls’ sports. (Decades later, Title IX is being used to address the pressing issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence in educational settings.) The influx of a few teenage girls onto basketball and tennis courts, softball and soccer fields, grew to a torrent in the time it took schools to order new uniforms and hire coaches.

But when I started high school in 1973, it was only the second year that there were school organized and funded programs for girls to play varsity sports. We had coaches, uniforms, practice facilities, and competitive schedules against other schools. My teammates who were juniors and seniors had played only occasional intramural games when they were freshmen. My friends and I were lucky—fate and President Nixon had given us opportunities that girls born only a few years before us could not have dreamed of.

I loved high school. I had great teachers and good grades came easily to me. I played varsity tennis, basketball, and softball and was elected captain on several teams. I was also elected president of a number of organizations, including my junior class and the National Honor Society. But at heart I was an extroverted introvert: a serious, private person, even as a little girl. I came by my reticence honestly, as a descendent of a long line of Yankee WASPs. Ancestors on both sides of my family had fought in the American Revolution.

I loved to read and study and write. I thought I might be a lawyer or English professor or journalist, although I remember hearing in high school that the FBI had started to hire women. That sounded like an interesting career, but I never gave it serious thought.

There was one terrible incident when I was in high school that shocked me to the core, however. Back in fifth grade in Park Ridge, I did a social studies project with two friends. For a few weeks, the three of us would walk to my house after school and have fun working on our assignment and eating homemade chocolate chip cookies. One of the girls and I had been in the same classroom off and on throughout grade school. Her name was Lynda Fuchs.

When my family moved to Glenview at the end of sixth grade, Lynda and I lost touch. But one night at the end of my freshman year, I was horrified when I turned on the television news and learned that Lynda’s older brother had murdered her and her family and then committed suicide. The news showed photographs of Lynda with her family and by herself. She looked exactly as I remembered her.

Every day I turned on the television news and scanned the newspaper, hungry for more details about the tragedy. The news constantly showed photographs of the family and footage of their red brick house surrounded by yellow crime scene tape. It seemed impossible to me that someone I had grown up with had been murdered. But as the details of the terrible crime were released, fourteen-year-old Lynda’s death became seared into my brain.

On Friday, June 14, 1974, Lynda’s eighteen-year-old brother Jeff took a .22 caliber rifle and shot his father in the head. He strangled his sixteen-year-old brother Scott and hit him in the head with a heavy object, fracturing his skull. He strangled his mother with a rope, stabbed her in the neck, and tied her hands in front of her. He stuffed dirty laundry between her legs. All of their bodies were found in the basement.

The police believe that Lynda was the last member of her family to be murdered. Jeff phoned her at a friend’s house at about 5:00 p.m. and told her she had to come home. Lynda refused, telling her brother that she had their mom’s permission to be out with her friend. At about 7:30, Jeff called again and ordered her to come home. When Lynda got inside the house, he shot her in the head with a .22 caliber rifle. Lynda’s body was also found in the basement. She was fourteen years old.

Afterward, Jeff tried to start a massive fire. He had constructed a Rube Goldberg time-delay incendiary device in the basement. If the device had functioned as intended, seven cans of flammable liquid would have ignited next to wooden planks and cloth, causing a significant blaze, if not actually burning the house to the ground. There was evidence that Jeff lit at least two candles, causing materials to smolder but failing to produce flames.

Jeff then killed himself by swallowing a lethal combination of alcohol, sleeping pills, and aspirin. His body was found upstairs in the kitchen. He did not leave a suicide note. He spared one member of the family—their dachshund, Schatzi. Jeff left the dog, his high school diploma, and his yearbook at his grandmother’s house. She was away for the weekend. She returned on Sunday night and, while it’s not known whether she was used to finding Schatzi in her home, she went to check on the Fuchs’s house the next morning. When she turned the key and opened the door, she saw a smoldering fire in the kitchen and called the fire department.

This was an unusually heinous crime, even for a murder/suicide. It was up to the forensic psychiatrists to diagnose Jeff Fuchs. Classmates described Jeff as a “loner” and “withdrawn.” He rarely talked to anyone and had no friends. He had refused to attend his high school graduation.

There was another detail about Jeff that struck me: his classmates said that he always walked right next to the wall with his head down and rarely, if ever, looked up. This was such a distinctive behavior that the image stayed with me. Later, when I interviewed crime victims and witnesses, I would ask them to describe how a suspect walked and moved, looking for any fact that would help me identify and understand the person. I did this most often when I was investigating bombers and arsonists, who tended to be more complicated people than gangbangers and gun traffickers. They had their own distinctive traits.

When I first saw on the news that Lynda and her family had been murdered I was fifteen years old and had just finished my freshman year. That my former social studies partner had been murdered by her brother was almost impossible for me to comprehend. That was not the world I grew up in. I was not naive before Linda died; I knew Norman Rockwell was a mirage. But after her death, the world was a different place. I knew that evil existed, even in a white-bread suburban high school, even behind the bespectacled eyes of my friend’s brother. Even now, after all I have seen, words fail me when I think of Lynda’s last moments.

As it must, time went on and the horror of Linda’s murder moved from front and center to backstage. I got back to normal, and for the next three years I thrived in high school. My dad had always assured me that he would pay for me to go to the best college I could get into. During the fall of senior year, I asked my dad if I should apply for either academic or athletic scholarships to help pay for college, and he said no. Athletic scholarships for girls were brand new and while the idea of being able to help pay for college by playing sports was exciting, it was also weird. I had never played sports for any reason except fun.

When the summer of 1977 arrived, it brought both highs and lows. I turned eighteen and a few days later graduated with class awards for academics, athletics, and leadership. But my graduation was overshadowed by the fact that my mom and dad had not been getting along for some time. Several of my friends’ parents had recently split up, and I thought my parents would probably get divorced too.

A few days after graduation, I flew to the state of Washington for a twenty-three-day backpacking expedition with Outward Bound, a well-established mountaineering school. This adventure was my high school graduation present, and I had looked forward to it for months. I had studied maps and guidebooks and gone for lengthy runs to build up my endurance.

Our trip was in the heart of the Washington Cascades, a heavily forested and unspoiled mountain range. Of the ten mountaineering students in my group, I was the youngest. I was usually one of the most cheerful and energetic backpackers, probably to the annoyance of some, but one day my enthusiasm waned when we were making a lengthy ascent through dense, rocky timberland. The sharp switchbacks seemed endless. I sat and rested on a rock, exhausted. I didn’t know how far I had to go. It was my lowest point.

But a few minutes later my favorite instructor came up the trail. He paused, gave me a quick pep talk, and hiked on and out of sight. Alone, I realized I had to go on too, picked up my heavy pack, slung it on my back and climbed, one weary, aching step at a time, before making it to the top.

A few days later I was feeling invincible when we made a summit attempt on one of the highest peaks in the Cascades, well over 14,000 feet. The sky was a deep, clear blue, and the air was cold and clean. After hiking up the trail for hours and then scrambling up a lengthy scree field full of snow, ice, loose gray rock, and boulders, several of us reached the summit, where we all celebrated. My mom’s favorite picture of me was taken that day as I stood atop the crest in my simple mountaineering gear. In that photo, I look happy—beaming and sunburned. The white zinc oxide that I used to protect my skin was smeared on my face. I remember how proud I was to stand atop the peak, looking out with my friends on the spectacular, endless mountain range spread out below us.

At the end of our expedition we all received a patch with Outward Bound’s motto on it, “To Serve, to Strive and Not to Yield,” a phrase taken from Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.” Later, I pinned the patch to my office wall as a talisman. Many times in the years to come I looked at my patch and remembered how hard I had fought to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, including that endless ascent through timberland.

When I arrived home from my Outward Bound trip, I discovered that what I had long anticipated was finally happening—my parents were getting divorced. My dad had waited until I was eighteen years old to move out. It was an unpleasant, commonplace story, made worse because no-fault divorce laws didn’t exist then in Illinois. Their divorce took years and many thousands of dollars, and one day my dad told me there was no money to pay for me to go to college. I was shocked. But I quickly picked myself up and was fortunate to earn a full athletic scholarship for softball to Northwestern University at the last second.

My mom, grandmother, and grandfather had all graduated from Northwestern, and it seemed natural for me to go there too. The gorgeous campus hugs the shoreline of Lake Michigan, just north of Chicago in Evanston, Illinois. My freshman year was only the second year the university offered athletic scholarships for women—another luck of timing. Northwestern’s softball field was barely adequate, and we had no dugout. Our season started in early April and more than once we played in the snow. I remember sitting on one of our two benches along the third base line and watching the snow melt on my hands as I held a bat. But Title IX had started to pay off for girls and women in monetary terms. Just like men, women were now able to attend college at little or no financial cost because of their athletic skills.


  • Cynthia Beebe captures her remarkable career as the country's first female Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms (ATF) agent in her memoir, Boots in the Ashes. She was hired in 1987, and her story is astonishing --even now when women account for only 16 percent of Criminal Investigators in the Department of Justice's Law Enforcement component.

In one case after another, Beebe reveals how her fearlessness and valor commanded the respect of her extremely masculine peers and even the vicious criminals she investigated...Well worth reading!—Fern Schumer Chapman, author of Motherland and It Is Night or Day

On Sale
Feb 25, 2020
Page Count
304 pages
Center Street

Cynthia Beebe

About the Author

Cynthia Beebe is a retired Senior Special Agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). She spent 27 years investigating bombings, arson, murder, illegal firearms, gangs and other crimes. Her cases were chronicled in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Ladies Home Journal, and were covered on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and 48 Hours. She was the first woman to earn the coveted “Top Gun” award at the ATF Academy, where she later worked as an instructor. Beebe is a member of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators, the International Association of Arson Investigators and Women in Federal Law Enforcement. She has a B.A. in English Literature and a Master’s Degree in Journalism, both from Northwestern University, which she attended on an athletic scholarship. Since her retirement she has appeared as an expert commentator on law enforcement issues for WGN radio and television. She lives with her son in a suburb of Chicago.

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