There were 96 American law-enforcement officers killed in the line of duty last year. Two of them were co-workers of FBI agent Gordon McNeill. McNeill is lucky he didn't die, too.
Next month will be the first anniversary of what has been called the bloodiest shoot-out in FBI history. McNeill and 13 other agents, using 11 cars, attempted to surround two murderous bank robbers in their car on a side street just off the busy South Dixie Highway in a suburb south of Miami.
The robbers, both in their early 30s, had become friends in Korea while serving as military policemen with the United States Army's elite Ranger corps.
At 9:30 on the bright, clear morning of April 11, William Russell Matix and Michael Lee Platt were driving a black 1982 Chevrolet, which they had recently stolen after shooting the owner four times, to their 10th bank robbery in 11 months.
Matix and Platt had with them a 12-gauge shotgun, two .38-caliber revolvers and a semi-automatic rifle. They had recently bought 5,000 rounds of ammunition and they apparently were prepared to fire every round they had.
The robbers' vehicle was rammed by one of the FBI cars on a tree-lined neighborhood street, and an ensuing shoot-out lasted about five minutes. Short as it was, it made the gunfight at OK Corral look like a one-shot duel at 10 paces. More than 140 shots were fired. Matix, Platt and two agents were killed.
Five more government agents were wounded, and one of the three critically injured was McNeill. He was shot in the chest, hand and arm and lost half of his blood.
Gordon McNeill, 44, a 22-year FBI veteran, has been back at work for only a few weeks, and he'll be behind a desk until he retires later this year.
Lately, though, McNeill has been spending almost as much time at Hialeah and Gulfstream Park as he has on the job, following the careers of three thoroughbreds that he partly owns.
"I'll never be able to forget last year," McNeill said the other day, "but at least the horses help. I've been following the horses since I sneaked over the fence at Garden State Park when I was 14 years old and growing up in North Philadelphia."
McNeill's parents weren't wealthy. His father worked for the post office and when he and his wife went to the track, they were $2 show bettors.
McNeill went to college at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, borrowing $4,000 that was still unpaid as graduation neared. One winter day, at the neighborhood meat market, Charlie the butcher was talking about a Philadelphia trainer--Angelo somebody--who had a horse that loved to run on frozen tracks. His name was Wide Horizon and he'd be running at Bowie, in Maryland, in a few days.
When Wide Horizon's name appeared in the Bowie entries, Helen Loretta McNeill and her son took off for Maryland.
They wheeled every horse in the first race with Wide Horizon, who was running in the second. The winner of the first race, a 30-1 shot, was disqualified. But the horse the stewards moved up to first place was 19-1, and when Wide Horizon won the second race, just as Angelo the trainer had guaranteed Charlie the butcher, the McNeills were in the silk.
"We had won the $4,000," McNeill said. "Then something else happened. I picked out some horses in the next four races, and they also won. My mother and I walked out of Bowie with $7,000. St. Joe's got their money."
McNeill's mother, dead now, had a recurring dream. "She used to always dream about owning a race horse," McNeill said. "But of course, she could never afford it. I'd like to think that I'm living out my mother's dream now. These three horses are 3-year-olds, and they haven't won a race yet, but it's the kind of thing my mother always would have liked to have done."
Actually, McNeill owned a piece of a horse before the shoot-out. Assigned by the FBI to Houston in 1981, he was a catcher for a team playing in the championship game of the Law Enforcement Softball League. On a play at the plate, McNeill was struck in the face by a relay throw and blinded in his left eye.
The money from the insurance settlement enabled McNeill to join a group that owned Important Business, who won the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park in 1985. Important Business is now a 5-year-old who's been running at Santa Anita this season.
One of McNeill's Florida horses is named Heavy Lifter, something the FBI man will never be again. He has a permanent spinal cord injury, there is no feeling in his chest and he has trouble getting around.
"My legs feel as bad as they did the day I got shot," McNeill said. "I'm told that what's happened is that my legs, when I want to use them, aren't sending the proper messages to the brain."
McNeill used to be a runner. He competed in three Orange Bowl Marathons. One of the houses he passed in his morning runs, nine blocks from where he lived with his wife and two teen-age daughters, was where Matix lived.