Vt. native back home to head region’s Border Patrol Sector

By Wilson Ring
Associated Press / December 25, 2010

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SWANTON, Vt. — Almost a quarter-century after Burlington native John Pfeifer graduated from college and headed west to Texas to join the Border Patrol, he’s back in Vermont, now commanding the Border Patrol Sector that runs 295 miles from Ogdensburg, N.Y., to the New Hampshire-Maine line.

It’s not like he is new to the region, even as an agent. Pfeifer, now the chief patrol agent for the Swanton Sector, spent years working out of the Border Patrol’s Newport station where he played key roles in at least one critical national security case and one of the most-high profile crimes ever committed in Vermont and New Hampshire.

During his 24-year Border Patrol career he has also been back to Texas and served a time at Border Patrol headquarters in Washington. Before returning to Vermont in March he was the deputy chief of the Rio Grande Valley Sector in Texas.

He says growing up in Vermont and working along the US-Canadian border has helped him understand the culture along the frontier that in some places used to be all but invisible while at the same time separating countries with different laws and backgrounds, a difference highlighted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States brought stricter border-crossing requirements.

“It’s good because you know what affects them and why they would perceive things the way they do and maybe you can help them look at things from a different angle,’’ Pfeifer said. “I also think it’s good to get a perspective on other places because maybe they’ve tackled that problem already and you don’t have to work so hard to fix it here.’’

Pfeifer also grew up, professionally speaking, with others in Vermont who have gone on to leadership positions in the state and federal law enforcement community. He said he knew the current head of the Vermont State Police, Colonel Thomas L’Esperance, years ago and he worked with the current US attorney, Tristam Coffin, when Coffin was a junior prosecutor.

Now Pfeifer oversees more than 300 agents and support workers whose job it is to keep the border secure. His agents now chase illegal immigrants and smugglers of drugs, cash, and other contraband from the St. Lawrence River east to the forests of northern New England.

And the need to focus on a possible terrorist threat along the northern border followed the 9/11 attacks. Now Congress is starting to recognize the drug threat from the north. Earlier this week it passed a measure asking that the Office of National Drug Control Policy seek ways to blunt the growing movement of drugs across the US-Canadian border. The measure is awaiting the signature of President Obama.

If it’s implemented Pfeifer will be in the thick of the border drug operations.

Pfeifer graduated from Burlington’s Rice High School and went on to St. Michael’s College in Colchester. It was in college that he learned about the Border Patrol from a recruiter.

He learned fast, first being posted to Uvalde, Texas, a place so small he said he couldn’t find it on a map. In 1988 he came back to Vermont to work in the Newport office.

In 1997, responding to a mutual aid call from police in Colebrook, N.H., Pfeifer was critically wounded by Carl Drega during a daylong shooting rampage that began in New Hampshire and ended in Vermont. Drega killed two New Hampshire State Police troopers, a judge, and a newspaper editor before crossing into Vermont.

Pfeifer was shot in a gun battle on a Bloomfield back road where Drega was killed.

In 1999, Pfeifer was involved in the case of Lucia Garofalo, the Montreal woman caught at the border in Beecher Falls trying to smuggle a suspected Algerian immigrant into the United States. During the course of the investigation, federal prosecutors obliquely linked Garofalo to the case of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian national living in Montreal who trained in terrorist camps financed by Osama bin Laden. Ressam was arrested in Washington state in December 1999 trying to enter from Canada in an explosives-laden car that he intended to detonate at the Los Angeles Airport.

Garofalo later pleaded guilty to minor immigration violations and was sent back to Montreal.

More recently, Pfeifer has had to scramble to bring agents to Vermont from the southern border after federal authorities raised the security threat level in the region. And he has had to deal with Vermonters unaccustomed to the tighter border regulations. They’re a constituency he wants to understand. “Most of our landowners are quick to call when they see something’’ amiss along the border, Pfeifer said.