15 Law Enforcement Officers Murdered By Domestic Extremists Since the Oklahoma City Bombing
Since the Oklahoma City bombing, domestic extremists have murdered 15 law enforcement officers. Each of their deaths was a unique tragedy.
By Susy Buchanan
Denver, Colo., Police Department
Nov. 12, 1997
Terrence Bergh describes his late friend Bruce VanderJagt as a "Renaissance man" who dabbled in poetry, art, literature, bodybuilding, psychology and more. With an off-the-charts IQ and such varied interests, Bergh says it was "astounding" that VanderJagt was a police officer. His was a life lived to the fullest, writes Bergh, "without fear, with a sense of wonder and excitement, greeting the unknown as a new opportunity."
The strikingly handsome VanderJagt — who bore a considerable resemblance to Mel Gibson — was born in Grand Rapids, Mich. His father commanded a destroyer in World War II and VanderJagt followed his father into the service, joining the Marines when he graduated from high school.
VanderJagt was sent to Vietnam as a machine-gunner, but his stint was cut short when an explosion maimed his foot. He came back home and moved to Denver in 1972, cutting meat at grocery stores for two years before taking a job driving for the Rocky Mountain News, where he worked a graveyard shift to accommodate a busy class schedule. He would go on to earn two masters degrees, in philosophy and psychology, and receive his doctorate in psychology shortly before he was killed.
But he had other interests, too. VanderJagt became a campus police officer in 1979, the same year he met Anna, the woman he would eventually marry. He finally became a Denver police officer in 1986, at the age of 36.
He was an almost instant success. VanderJagt earned two Distinguished Service Crosses for his police work, one for disarming a man with a gun in 1989, the second for pulling two people out of a burning building a few months before he was killed.
"That's the way Bruce was," Lt. Jim Ponzi told the Rocky Mountain News. "I couldn't get him to write a traffic ticket, but anytime there was a serious situation he was the first one in."
VanderJagt came to fatherhood late, waiting until he was 45 to have Hayley, the little girl who lit up his life.
A teenager who waited on VanderJagt every morning at Einstein Bagels when he brought his daughter in for breakfast remembered him doting on young Hayley. "You could just see how much he loved her. He didn't have to say anything," she said at the funeral.
The end came for Bruce VanderJagt on Nov. 12, 1997. He was murdered by Matthaeus Jaehnig, 25, a racist Skinhead whose body was covered with neo-Nazi tattoos.
Jaehnig was a high school dropout who grew up in affluence, the son of two educators who didn't seem to object to their son carving "KKK" into Halloween pumpkins and setting them out in front of their 6,000-square-foot brick mansion. Jaehnig developed a fondness for pit bulls, guns and fights, and he soon began associating with the Denver Skins, a crew of around 30 racist Skinheads. He quickly racked up a lengthy police record, including arrests for illegal weapons, drugs and vehicular assault.
Jaehnig and VanderJagt were not strangers. They had met at around 1 a.m. on a hot July night in 1993, when VanderJagt and his partner were patrolling near Jaehnig's home. Jaehnig was throwing a boisterous party, and when the officers pulled up to ask the revelers to quiet down, Jaehnig sicced his dogs on them. VanderJagt arrested him for excessive noise and keeping dangerous dogs.
Their paths would cross one more time. Jaehnig and a friend, Lisl Auman, were spotted as they broke into the apartment of a former boyfriend of Auman's, supposedly to retrieve some of her belongings. The high-speed police chase that ensued, marked by hot exchanges of gunfire, led from a suburb some 30 miles from Denver to an apartment building downtown, where Jaehnig fled the car and took refuge in an alcove. VanderJagt led a small team of officers that advanced on the young Skinhead. As VanderJagt peered around a corner, Jaehnig squeezed off a fatal blast of automatic weapons fire, hitting Bruce VanderJagt 15 times. He died on the spot.
Jaehnig then grabbed VanderJagt's service revolver and killed himself with a shot through the chin. Auman, meanwhile, had been arrested even before the shooting began. Still, she was ultimately convicted of felony murder and sent to prison — a conviction that sparked a campaign, highlighted by the efforts of the late "gonzo journalist" Hunter Thompson, to win her freedom. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court reversed her conviction and Auman pleaded guilty to lesser charges in an agreement that will result in her release in the fall of 2005.