By Richard L. Young
Sept. 22, 2016, marks the 30th anniversary of the most tragic day in the history of the Southern District of Indiana. At 8:15 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 22, 1986, United States Probation Officer Thomas E. Gahl went to the Indianapolis home of Michael Wayne Jackson, an offender who had been added to Tom’s list of supervisees just a few days before. After receiving no answer to his knocks at the front door, Tom, an 11-year veteran of the Probation Office, turned around to head back to his car. Jackson then ambushed Tom, who was shot three times at close range and killed. Jackson fled and murdered two other people in the course of a manhunt that lasted 11 days and resulted in his suicide in a Missouri barn.
Tom’s wife, Nancy, and their two sons, Christopher (then 8 years old) and Nicholas (then 4) bore the brunt of Tom’s death, and they were not alone in their grief. Indeed, Tom’s murder left an indelible mark on the entire court family, and in particular on Probation Office staff, both in the Southern District of Indiana and across the country. His sacrifice has resulted in significant changes to how probation officers conduct their business, and Tom’s name has become synonymous with officer safety.
As an arm of the United States District Court, the U.S. Probation Office is responsible for the investigation of individuals charged with federal crimes, and also with supervision of said individuals to ensure their compliance with the orders of the court. In the course of their supervision, these officers must ensure that laws are upheld, public safety is protected and offenders are given appropriate tools to foster pro-social, productive and law-abiding behavior as members of society. This balancing act is all in a day’s work for the men and women of U.S. Probation, despite the hazardous nature of their duties. Tom’s death not only represented a heartbreaking illustration of officers’ exposure to great risk, but also was a catalyst for necessary change.
Before Tom’s murder, U.S. Probation Officers could not carry guns for personal protection; since then, Congress has enacted federal statutes permitting use of duty firearms and other personal protective equipment. Mandated officer training covers proper use and care of firearms, pepper spray and other safety equipment, and officers receive regular instruction and practice of defensive tactics. Upon commencement of federal supervision, risk assessment tools are employed to provide offenders with needed treatment, instruction, and/or community assistance, while also informing officers’ supervision strategies. These changes have made federal probation officers safer and ensured that Tom’s death was not in vain.
The Probation Office for the Southern District of Indiana also undertakes efforts to ensure that Tom is not forgotten. The office was named in his memory on June 24, 1994. This year, on the 30th anniversary of Tom’s death, the Thomas E. Gahl U.S. Probation Office will honor his memory with a day of service in Indianapolis. Above all, Tom was known for his kindness and generosity of spirit, so it is fitting that his colleagues have elected to honor him by performing acts of service to benefit the needy. The office’s work will be focused on Indianapolis’ near-west side, specifically at The Lord’s Pantry at Anna’s House. The Lord’s Pantry provides food, educational programs and other assistance to neighborhood residents in need. Their services align well with Tom’s work as past president of the Tri-Church (now Mid-North Church) Council, which established a neighborhood food pantry and community assistance network. Probation Office staff will perform long-needed maintenance tasks around the facility and grounds of The Lord’s Pantry. They will also donate and package food items for Kids’ Packs, which supplement children’s weekend meals when they are not receiving food from their schools. The Lord’s Pantry currently distributes 150-175 Kids’ Packs per week, and Probation Office staff strive to provide several weeks’ worth of meals. A dedication and moment of silence will also be held that morning, after which the staff will share breakfast before beginning their efforts at The Lord’s Pantry.
Time has passed and Tom’s colleagues, faced with mandatory retirement at age 57, have moved on. Still, many retired probation staff, along with my colleague, the Hon. Sarah Evans Barker, who was serving on the bench at the time of Tom’s murder, recall feeling on that day that they had endured the tragic and sudden loss of a family member. A new generation of officers, some of whom were not yet born during Tom’s lifetime, know his name and revere his many contributions to the probation system. Numerous awards in his name are bestowed upon worthy probation staff, locally and nationwide, to honor them for upholding his high standard of service.
The staff of the Southern District of Indiana maintains a warm, esteemed relationship with Tom’s family, who are familiar faces around the Birch Bayh Federal Courthouse. His boys are grown, accomplished men with young families of their own. Nancy volunteers regularly at the District Court Clerk’s Office in Indianapolis and often attends various events with the probation and courthouse family at large, to include this year’s Day of Service in her late husband’s memory. She advocates for officer safety every day, even traveling across the country to tell Tom’s story at various conferences.
The Thomas E. Gahl United States Probation Office has met on his anniversary every year since his death to reflect, to train and to appreciate each other. Those who knew Tom speak of his dedication to duty, faith and family. Whether his intention or not, Tom Gahl lived his too-brief life as an example to others. Though sorely missed, the good that he contributed to the world lives on among those who share his name, his faith and his duty. On Sept. 22 of this year, please join me in wishing Tom’s Probation family success in adding some more good to that list.•
Richard L. Young was appointed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana on March 25, 1998, and has served as chief judge since November 2009. He has chambers and presides over cases in Evansville and Indianapolis. The opinions expressed are those of the author.