True Heroines
Police Women Killed in the Line of Duty Throughout the United States 1916-1999

by Dr. William Wilbanks
Buy This Book at Amazon.com
Email William Wilbanks

Home  |  INTRODUCTION  |  Addendum  |  List of Officers  |  Summary Of Cases  |  Author


Introduction to True Heroines...

This book is a memorial to the 138 women law enforcement officers whose names are among the more than 14,600 officers inscribed on the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Though the 138 women represent less than 1% of the names on the memorial, the percentage of women officers among the line of duty deaths is rising rapidly reaching 8% of those added in 1998 (12 of 157).

     The first woman officer killed (in 1916) and six of the first eleven women killed were jail or prison "matrons" as there were few women police officers before the 1970's.  The youngest woman among the 138 was Doreen Tomlinson at 22 (Maria Groves and Dawn Erickson were also 22 but were months older) and the oldest was Kassie Mae Chandler at 68 (three others were 67).  Christy Hamilton and Suzanne Kays were killed during their first week on the job while Phyllis Myers was killed on her last scheduled day of work after a 27-year career.

     Ten of the 138 were federal officers and 18 were corrections officers.  A total of 54 of the 140 left surviving children 18 or under (with a total of 103 children).  Betty Dunn Smothers left 6 children 18 or under (the oldest being Warrick Dunn, later an All-American football player at Florida State University and currently with the Tampa Bay Bucs of the NFL).

     A total of 66 (47%) of the 138 women died in on-duty auto or air accidents; 52 (38%) were shot; 6 (4%) were stabbed; 6 (4%) were beaten/strangled; 5 (4%) died in "other accidents"; 2 (2%) died of on-duty heart attacks and 1 (1%) from a bomb.  Six of the 138 died from "friendly fire" or accidental gunshots.  Among the more unusual causes of death were Becky Lee Dwojeski's being crushed by a load of logs, Noreen Vargas' death from a tire that fell off a truck and came thru her windshield, two cases (Shirley Winston and Constance Worland) of accidental death from shotguns fired by colleagues, and Pauline Harness' death from a fall down a stairwell.

     Fourteen (10% of 138) were killed by drivers "under the influence" of alcohol or other drugs.  (The total would rise to 15 if one counts the Wendy Everett case where the offender/driver, arrested later, was likely drunk at the time of the "accident.")   The risk from drunk drivers rises to 21% (14 of 66) when only traffic accidents are considered.  For every four women officers shot (N=52), one was killed by a drunk driver.

     It also appears that women police officers are not immune from death via domestic violence (i.e., from angry spouses or boyfriends).  Three women officers (Downs, Moore, and Cobb) were killed by their spouse, ex-spouse, or boyfriend and a spouse was the primary suspect in another case (Cipriani).

     This author, who has taught criminal justice courses in universities for almost 30 years, was impressed by the fact that that at least 28 of the 138 women received college degrees in criminal justice or law enforcement and several others took some courses in this field (the college "status" of some was unknown or the major was unknown).  Michigan State University and the U. Southern Mississippi each had two graduates among the 138.  About 15 had degrees with other majors.

     It also appears that an unusual number of the 138 officers were excellent athletes.  Several were varsity athletes in college and some, like Denise Holden (in basketball) and Lisa Sandel (in track), were great varsity athletes.

     Fifteen of the killers were sentenced to death though several later had that sentence overturned.  One killer was executed (in 1917).

     Given the fact that a woman police officer's odds of a line of duty death in 1998 were about 5,000:1 (based on 12 deaths among the approximately 60,000 women officers nationwide), it is remarkable how many women who died in the line of duty were the first hired by their agency.  Kathleen Reilly and Jacquelyn Sherrill had the distinction of being the first woman hired, the first woman promoted and the first woman killed.  Janet Rogers, Robin Arnold, Nancy Nichols, Cecilia Cipriani, Mary Mohr, Regina Nickles and Stacia Alyea were the first women hired by their agency and the first woman killed.

     Some may question why the title of book declares that each of the 138 were "TRUE HEROINES."  In my view, law enforcement officers who die in the line of duty are heroes just as soldiers who are killed during a war.  Moreover, all officers, unlike many soldiers, volunteer for the job knowing that they might have to "take a bullet" to protect society.  Hopefully, these narratives will acquaint the readers with the sacrifice made by these TRUE HEROINES and ensure that they are not forgotten!

     Many of the line of duty deaths reported in this book fit the more traditional definition of "hero" as one officer (Kathleen Reilly), though off-duty on Christmas day, got out of her family car to help an auto accident victim saying, "It's my job!" and was struck and killed; two others (Cheryl Seiden and Evelyn Gort), though facing a pointed gun, "went for" their service revolver to protect citizens from an armed robber and were shot; another (Frankie Shivers), jumped into a burning auto to rescue a woman and was shot; another (Alma Walters), though held by an armed suspect, shouted out a warning that saved other officers but resulted in her being shot; another (Irma Ruiz), confronted an armed man at an elementary school who intended to kill school children and was shot; and another (Colleen Waibel), was the "first thru the door" in a drug raid on a house occupied by a barricaded armed man and was shot.

     It should be noted that the number of pages devoted to each of the 138 cases is not indicative of my view of the relative importance of each case but of the availability of information.  Newspaper coverage of some cases was extensive while little coverage was located for others.  Narratives with information about offenders arrested and prosecuted (rather than auto accidents) also generated more news coverage.  In most cases family members provided additional information while in a few cases family members could not be located or (in only two or three cases) declined to provide information.

     This author personally researched cases in FL, GA, KY, NC, VA, NJ, NY, RI, PA, DE, MD, CN, IL, WI, MO, OK, CA, TX, AL, MI, CO, MI, and Washington, D.C. and met with police and survivors, photographed grave markers and memorials, etc.

     Readers will be impressed by the "impact" that many of these officers had on their communities and by the various memorials erected to their memory.  For example, a children's "Farmstead" was named after Deanna Rose, an elementary school after Irma Ruiz, a law enforcement building after Robin Ahrens and Jacquelyn Sherrill, a public park after Margaret Park, Maureen Murphy, Anita Pospisil, and Victoria Chavez, and a county jail after Suzanne Kays and Sandra Larson.  Hopefully this book will serve as a compendium of ways that other communities and agencies can honor their police heroes.  Memorials to slain officers also included web sites on the Internet such as that devoted to Shelby County Deputy Sherry Goodman (1996).  Several agencies included a "wall of honor" on their web site.

     Numerous people contributed to the research included in the 138 narratives.  Most were family members though several were police officers and some were just citizens who wanted to help.  The book could not have been completed without cooperation from Craig Floyd and Berneta Spence of the National Law Enforcement Memorial.  The names of those who made the most significant contributions to particular narratives are included under "Sources."  A special word of thanks goes out to all those family members who made a special effort "To Keep the Memory Alive."

     This book is the last of five books by this author on police officers killed published through Turner Publications.  The others:
        Forgotten Heroes: Police Officers Killed in Dade County (1996)
        Forgotten Heroes: Police Officers Killed in Greenville County, SC (1997)
        Forgotten Heroes: Police Officers Killed in Early FL, 1840-1925 (1998)
        Forgotten Heroes: Police Officers Killed in Alaska, 1867-1997 (1999)

     For updates on officers killed after 1998, readers can check the "Officer Down Memorial Page" on the Internet (http://www.odmp.org).  Readers can also locate all the officers included in this book at the Internet address (http://www.nleof.com/) of the National Law Enforcement Memorial and can even post "tributes" to particular officers at that address. The women officers killed since 1960 are included on the memorial wall at the International Police Hall of Fame and Museum in Miami FL (see http://www.aphf.org).

Dr. Wm. Wilbanks, Florida International University, June, 1999.

top of page