The Saddest Story
By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer
Mourning a Russian-born border guard, killed in the line of duty
Ido Aharoni, the local Israeli consul for communications and public affairs, is preparing to
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Alexander Kirpnick, 27, died in the line of duty on June 3, 1998, at the Arizona-Mexico border. Returned to Los Angeles and buried with full military honors next to his grandfather, he was a hero who died doing what he wanted to do, his mother said.
Eta Kirpnick still can’t accept his death. “He was a wonderful son,” she said, brokenly. “He used to visit us very often, never forgot our birthdays, never forgot about Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. It’s a terrible loss.”
Kirpnick, who immigrated with his family to Los Angeles from the former Soviet Union 10 years ago, was patrolling the border near Nogales, Ariz., with his partner at around midnight on June 2 when sensors went off, indicating that someone had crossed the border illegally. The two agents split up to try to intercept the five trespassers, who appeared to be drug smugglers. When Kirpnick called for two of them to halt, one bolted. As Kirpnick turned to pursue him, the other man shot him in the head and fled. The wounded agent was airlifted to the University of Arizona hospital, where he died a few hours later.
Even in uniform, with a gun strapped to his waist, her son was “a big, tough guy, a soldier…with a soft heart,” Eta Kirpnick said during an interview in the family’s West Hollywood apartment. Condolence letters from U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, FBI Director Louis Freeh, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, and several U.S. senators and representatives were piled on the dining room table, where yahrtzeit candles still burned. “That Alex himself was an immigrant who came to this country with a dedication to help uphold the laws of the United States makes his death that much more tragic,” Reno wrote. “Your son’s service to his adopted country stands as the true meaning of dedication.”
When she talks of her son’s death, Eta remembers another tragedy that overtook her family during World War II. Her parents lost almost their entire families in Auschwitz, as did the majority of Jews in her homeland in the Carpathian Mountains. Her father’s first wife and five children died there. Only about 10,000 of a population that once numbered more than 100,000 survived.
Eta was among the first children born after the war, in 1946; almost all the town’s children were killed in Auschwitz, she said. Her family’s land, part of Hungary before the war, was claimed by the Soviets afterward. The family spoke no Russian, just Yiddish and Hungarian. Once traditional Jews, they were forced to practice their religion in secret and couldn’t get kosher food. Eta and her husband, Boris, were married under a chupah behind closed doors, and, when Alex was born, his circumcision was also a secret. Eta’s father left with his wife and son for Israel in the mid-1970s. The Kirpnicks — then called Kirpichnikov — weren’t permitted to emigrate, nor, after Eta’s father died later, was she able to attend the funeral.
In late 1987, the family decided to emigrate to the States. They were worried that Alex, then 17, might be drafted into the Soviet army. So they traveled via Austria and Italy to Los Angeles, where Boris’ brother and father had moved. Coming to America was a dream come true for the family. “It’s a country from a fairy tale,” Boris used to say.
They were poor refugees, but they wanted work, not welfare. Alex, who spoke little English at the time, walked from business to business near their apartment in the San Fernando Valley. Eventually, he got a job unloading trucks for $5 an hour at May Co. Boris, an engineer in Russia, became a plumber’s helper. He later drove a taxi. Eta, trained as an English teacher, was soon hired by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles to work with Russian émigrés. JFS had helped resettle the Kirpnicks. As Eta proved herself, she was promoted to resettlement worker, helping others as she had been helped.
Alex studied psychology at Valley College and continued to work at May Co., eventually becoming a supervisor. But he wanted to do something else with his life. After the family became naturalized, he decided to go into law enforcement. His linguistic ability — he spoke Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Yiddish and English and soon became so proficient in Spanish that he was mistaken for a native — made him a natural for the border patrol. Immediately after passing his written and oral exams, he was accepted to the border patrol academy, turning down an executive post at Robinson’s May to following his heart. “He said, ‘No way,'” recounted his sister, Zhanna, now 20 and a third-year student in molecular genetics at UCLA. “This was his dream.”
Seven years apart in age, Zhanna and her brother had become close during their time in Italy, when they had only each other. She often visited him in Tucson, Ariz., where he was stationed, and got to know his friends. “Alex was one of a kind,” she said. “He could do imitations of anything. He would start cracking a joke, and people would be on the ground laughing.”
Zhanna talked about her brother’s death calmly, without tears. “I’m handling it in my own way,” she said quietly. “I don’t have the luxury of just breaking down.”
The funeral was held at the Russian Chabad Synagogue. So large was the procession to Eden Memorial Park that the San Diego and Santa Monica freeways were closed off. A few days later, Zhanna and her father flew to Arizona to attend the border patrol memorial to her brother. It was held in a baseball stadium, and more than 500 agents attended. Reno, Meissner, Freeh and several congressmen spoke. Alex received the full military honors of his adopted country — a 21-gun salute, riderless horse and planes flying overhead in the famous “missing man” formation. Later, Zhanna sat around with Alex’s colleagues talking about her brother. “It was so touching to see all these grown men in uniforms with guns, just sobbing,” she said. “It was obvious that they just adored him.”
A month later, the family is still shattered, but tries to keep going. Eta Kirpnick goes to her job and sees clients, but she can’t eat and needs pills to sleep. She praises her supervisors and co-workers at JFS and others at Jewish Vocational Service for helping her through the ordeal. While her husband and daughter were in Arizona, 10 to 15 people came to her house every day to comfort her.
Boris is still too grief-stricken to go back to driving a cab. He would be a danger to his passengers, his wife said. Zhanna, who was in the middle of finals at UCLA when her brother was killed, is trying to make up the work and hold down a part-time job.
“This wound will be forever,” Eta said sadly, leafing through photos of her smiling son. I still can’t believe he’s gone. When I wake up in the morning, and the sun is shining, I say, ‘Why isn’t the sky black?'”