U.S. Probation Officer Thomas Eric Gahl

U.S. Probation Officer Thomas Eric Gahl

Friday, September 22, 2017, marks the thirty-first anniversary of Thomas Gahl's line-of-duty death in the in the Southern District of Indiana.  His sacrifice serves as a constant reminder how the routine functions of our position carry the potential for danger.  Every day, across the system, federal probation and pretrial services officers carry out similar activities.    Please take a moment to review the article previously posted in News & Views.

News & Views - October 26, 2015

U.S. Probation Officer Thomas Eric Gahl (Indiana Southern) Tom Gahl was born in Valparaiso, Indiana, on December 14, 1947. He became a United States probation officer on March 14, 1975. 

Tom served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a 1st Lieutenant and later worked at the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, Indiana, and the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. He received a bachelor’s degree from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, and a master’s degree from Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The morning of Monday, September 22, 1986, Tom, then an 11-year veteran of the United States probation and pretrial services system, began his day preparing to visit parolee Mike Wayne Jackson, age 41, at Jackson’s home to take a urine test. Tom had met Jackson for the first time a week earlier in his office. The prior weekend, he had taken home Jackson’s nearly 1,000-page file but never got the chance to read it. He knew that Jackson had a long history of mental illness and violent tendencies.

A Violent Act provides a detailed account of Tom Gahl’s death as well as Jackson’s subsequent crime spree and eventual suicide. In his book, author Alec Wilkinson provides a vivid description of Jackson:

“He was forty years old. He lived without running water, electric light, or cooking gas in a house in Indianapolis that had stood empty for years before he moved himself into it one month earlier. He slept on straw in an upstairs room, or in the back of his pickup truck parked in the yard. He did not bathe. . . . He was perhaps six feet tall and weighed about two hundred pounds. He often wore farmer’s overalls. He had a small paunch. His shoulders tended to stoop. He had long black hair with strands of gray in it, and a long black beard that covered nearly all of his face. There was some question of his sanity.”

As Tom got ready for work, his wife Nancy, worried that Jackson might be dangerous, suggested that Jackson visit Tom at the office in lieu of a home visit. With a reassuring but hesitant tone, Tom replied, “Please don’t worry. Things will be all right.” After all, he had never heard of a federal probation or pretrial services officer ever being killed. Besides, if Tom ever thought an offender was dangerous, he would take a United States marshal along with him on a home visit. He had no plans to do so this time.

Tom left the house at approximately 7:45 a.m., and by 8:05 a.m., he had been shot and killed.

Two of Jackson’s neighbors gave eyewitness accounts of Tom’s visit to Jackson’s home and Tom’s subsequent murder. One neighbor heard Tom knocking on Jackson’s door. Knowing that Jackson never had visitors, she stepped outside to see who it was.

When Jackson didn’t answer the door, Tom walked back to his car and briefly sat inside with the door open. Within minutes he exited his car and began walking toward Jackson’s house. Suddenly, Jackson came out of his house and charged at Tom with a shotgun. When Tom turned to run, Jackson fired the first shot into the back of his left arm, below the shoulder, breaking his elbow. The force of the shot spun Tom around to face Jackson.

After hearing the first shot, the second neighbor stepped out of her house to see Jackson “backing Tom Gahl up at the point of his shotgun.” Because she couldn’t see Tom’s face, she thought that Jackson had just shot her husband.

Tom and Jackson were now on the street, and Tom’s back faced the neighbor. As Tom backed up onto the sidewalk toward her, he held his left arm at his side. Raising his right hand toward Jackson, he said, “Please don’t shoot. Don’t shoot me. It’s not going to do you any good.” But Jackson continued toward him.

Tom turned his head to one side and said, “Oh, God.” Jackson fired the second shot into the side of Tom’s head, knocking him to his knees, then to the ground.

A man driving his son to school quickly stopped his car near Tom. He and the boy watched Jackson lean over and place the barrel of the rifle close to Tom’s head, firing the third shot.

As Jackson stood there, the neighbor recalled that his face was “empty of any emotion or feeling or spark of life.” She watched him walk back into his house, come back outside wearing different clothes, and driving away.

Following is an account of Jackson’s violent spree through Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri over the next 10 days:

|-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------|
|  Eighteen minutes after the shooting, Jackson drove to J. B. Market and shot and 
|  killed owner James B. Hall after attempting to rob the store. He then ordered a 
|  bread deliveryman, who was inside the store, to drive him to the airport in the 
|  man’s delivery truck. After ordering the man to stop at the business end of the 
|  airport, Jackson got out, walked up to a man who was getting into a jeep, pointed 
|  his shotgun at him, demanded his keys, and drove off. 
|-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------|
|  After stopping the jeep in front of a house, Jackson abducted a young woman who 
|  was unloading her car. They drove for approximately 45 minutes, until the woman 
|  jumped out of the car in Frankfort, Indiana. Jackson drove away.
|-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------|
|  Driving through Frankfort, Jackson traveled to a trailer park, got out of the car, 
|  and approached a trailer where a woman and her three-year-old son lived. Once  
|  inside, Jackson abducted the two and drove off in the woman’s car. He traveled for 
|  approximately ten minutes and stopped the car on a country road. After stealing  
|  the woman’s money and rings she was wearing, he drove off.
|-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------|
|  At approximately 6 p.m. that evening, Jackson drove to a shopping mall in Clayton, 
|  Missouri. He walked up to a woman, who was securing her son in the car, and  
|  demanded that she give him her purse. After ordering her and her son to lie on the 
|  ground, he drove off.  
|-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------|
|  Jackson committed his third and final murder at approximately 6:45 p.m. as he  
|  drove along Interstate 70 through St. Peters, Missouri. There he saw Earl Dallas 
|  Finn driving a Ford LTD (a model commonly used by police departments). Jackson 
|  drove alongside of Finn, pointed the barrel of his shotgun at Finn from four feet  
|  away, and fired. Finn’s car swerved off the highway before crashing into a light 
|  pole.  
|-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------|
|  Next, Jackson drove approximately 10 miles west to O’Fallon, Missouri. At  
|  approximately 6:55 p.m., he approached a woman outside of an IGA and ordered her 
|  to get into her car. When the woman fought him, refusing to get inside, Jackson  
|  took her keys and drove away.  
|-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------|
|  Jackson then drove through O’Fallon for five minutes until he came upon a house, 
|  where an elderly man was planting a tree. After escorting the man inside the 
|  house, Jackson ordered the man’s daughter to give him the keys to one of three 
|  cars that were parked in the driveway. As he drove her Buick Regal down the  
|  street, the woman’s husband passed the car and began to follow it, trailing close 
|  behind. Jackson turned around and fired his shotgun, blowing out the back window 
|  of the man’s car.  |
|-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------|
|  Soon after, Jackson abandoned the Buick in O’Fallon and abducted a young man who 
|  was polishing a Cadillac. Somewhere between O’Fallon and Wright City, Missouri,  
|  Jackson put the young man in the trunk. After driving past two police officers in  
|  a patrol car in Wright City, Jackson shot at them, injuring one officer. As he 
|  sped away, both officers fired shots at the car. One of them hit Jackson, who  
|  plowed the car through a fence, over several ditches, and back onto the roadway, 
|  damaging the radiator and transmission. He then abandoned the car a distance away. 
|-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------|
|  From there Jackson fled into the woods, eventually making his way to an abandoned  
|  barn near Wright City. On October 2, 1986, after a 10-day search, the FBI and  
|  other law enforcement surrounded the barn where Jackson was hiding out. When a 
|  tracker and three FBI agents entered the barn, Jackson committed suicide in the  
|  loft with the same shotgun he had used to kill his victims.  
|-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------|

Nancy Gahl

It has been nearly 30 years since that fateful day on September 22, 1986. Recently, I spoke with Nancy Gahl, who reflected on the outpouring of love, support, and encouragement that she and her sons have received since Tom Gahl’s death.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned from Tom’s death? 
The biggest thing I’ve learned is that God will see you through. He will never abandon you but will walk with you through any difficulty that you have in life. God was definitely guiding me through all of that. I was on my knees, saying, “I can’t get through this alone. I really need you to come and help me.” And He did. He surrounded me with family and friends who have been a wonderful support and who helped raise my boys.

How has the federal probation and pretrial services system supported you and your sons over the years?
At the time of Tom’s death, probation staff in Tom’s office immediately came to our aid and have been a support ever since. Each year on September 22, they send me a beautiful bouquet of flowers. My sons and I have always considered the courthouse staff a part of our family, and they wanted my sons and me to know that we’re a part of the courthouse family. Senior U.S. District Judge Sarah Barker (Indiana Southern) also has been a strong presence and support for us over the years. 

Hundreds of people in the federal system also sent letters, cards, and books and told me they were praying for me. Federal probation and pretrial services staff donated approximately $60,000 toward my sons’ college tuition. One probation officer in the state of Washington even made badges, sold them, and donated that money to the education fund. I can’t thank the federal staff enough for everything they have done for us. We are overwhelmed with gratitude, and I feel so indebted to each one of them.

Life After Tom’s Death

For many years, Nancy has volunteered once a week in the U.S. District Court clerk’s office in the building where Tom worked. She also volunteers at the local hospital and for hospice. For some time after Tom’s death, Nancy found that people who had lost a loved one would look to her for help, so she received training in bereavement counseling. She says that one of the ways she made it through her loss was to help others.

Over the years, Nancy also has given speeches in the federal system about Tom’s death. She hopes that, through sharing her experience with officers, she can make a positive difference in how they do their job. “I always tell them that I want them to be able to go home to their families,” she said.

Nancy and her sons Chris and Nick live in the Indianapolis area. Chris is the vice president of marketing for a convention and visitors association, and Nick is an environmental attorney. They share their thoughts about their dad and their gratitude for the support they’ve received over the years:

"There is no doubt that our dad could hold his own. He was a college football player, a Marine, and a prison guard. But it was his gentleness that we have come to appreciate. We believe that our dad took on the role of a helper, seeking to rehabilitate those in society who have made poor decisions. As one example, after his death, an offender wrote us a special note every September 22, remembering how much our dad had changed his life. To this day, our mom receives a sympathy card from this offender on the anniversary of our dad’s death. 

"We can't overemphasize our appreciation for our education fund, as those contributions served as our primary funding to attend Butler University and Notre Dame. We question whether we would have been able to attend those private universities without the generous donations from staff around the country."

In 2011 the Federal Probation and Pretrial Officers Association (FPPOA) produced a heartfelt video to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Tom Gahl’s death. In the video, Nancy, Chris, and Nick Gahl share kind thoughts and words about their husband and father.

Thomas Gahl - 25th Anniversary Video | FPPOA
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyGmugNvKkQ