During his colorful career with ATF, which spanned more than three decades, James Cavanaugh found himself in the thick of some of nation’s biggest cases: The D.C. sniper murders, the Unabomber, white supremacist Eric Rudolph, church burnings and the deadly shootout at the Branch Davidian in Waco, Tex. involving leader David Koresh.
“Ninety-nine percent of him thought he was David Koresh, but the 1 percent of him really knew he was Vernon Wayne Howell, just a two-bit thug from the country in Texas,” said Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the ATF Nashville office, commenting on Koresh during a lengthy interview in October 2009 with ticklethewire.com. He was one of the negotiators during the standoff.
On Wednesday, Cavanaugh, a New Jersey native who kept his Jersey street sense about him while acquiring a Southern charm during his many years working in the south, retired from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives after 33 1/2 years. He’s reached the mandatory retirement age of 57.
His retirement party is Thursday night in Nashville where he headed the ATF office for 12 years.
“Jim is one of a kind, all the way from this ability to do the job, to his passion for the mission and his professionalism,” said Mark Potter, special agent in charge of the ATF Philadelphia office. “He’ll create a huge void in the organization.”
The son of a firefighter, Cavanaugh, became a Florida sheriff’s deputy in 1974 and joined ATF two years later.
He started his career in Nashville, where he spent eight years before getting promoted to resident agent in Witchita, Kan. He then transferred to headquarters in the Explosive Division and then the Special Operations Division.
After that, he became assistant special agent in charge in Dallas and later returned to headquarters as deputy chief of the Explosive Division. He later went on to head the Birmingham Division and then Nashville.
U.S. Attorney Edward M. Yarbrough of Nashville credited Cavanaugh and his agents for significantly increasing the number of indictments of felons with guns by almost three-fold from 2008 to 2009 through the Project Safe Neighborhoods, and for helping crack down on gangs.
“Jim is a fantastic law enforcement officer,” he said. “He’s easy to work with, always available. Sorry to see him go.”
Echoing similar sentiments, My Harrison, special agent in charge of the FBI in Memphis said: “Jim is a great law enforcement partner and friend. I will personally miss our time together.”
Assessing his career with ATF, Cavanaugh said on his last day:
“I did it my way. I did it as a field commander, not as a headquarters guy. That’s the way I wanted to do it. It’s just who I am. That’s why I joined the cops. Even though I did two tours of Washington, I fought off a half dozen transfers and promotions with big titles up there to stay in the field.”
“Washington has got to realize the field command is a critical piece to keeping America safe,” he said.
Cavanaugh said he’s not sure what he’s going to do in the next chapter of his life.
“I”m excited. It’s a little sad too. It’s been a long time. I’m looking forward to new things and change.”