The chief of the four-man police force in Aldan, Pa., while attempting to clean his loaded .38-caliber revolver in his basement one February evening in 1977, somehow shot himself in the stomach and died one hour later.
Within two weeks, a lawyer representing the widow wrote to the Justice Department to find out how to apply under the 1976 Public Safety Officers' Benefits Act for the $50,000 to be paid by the federal government to survivors of officers killed "in the line of duty."
When the three-page law was passed, its sponsors thought they were making a simple financial gesture to, as Sen. Strom Thurmond R-S.C.) said at the time, "decent, hardworking men and women [who] face the constant risk of death in the line of duty. . ."
Like so many other federal money programs, however, the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Act is developing a complex set of regulations, legal precedents and a following of lawyers and others who see it as a quick way to make money. The issues have become so complicated that the government has had to create a whole new appeals system just for this one small program.
One third of the 1,010 claims so far decided under the three-year-old act have been turned down by the Justice Department. About half of these have gone to appeal.
In the cases where the $50,000 is awarded, public announcement is no longer made, because salesmen and other promoters harassed the widows and children whose names were once announced by their congressmen.
Justice Department administrators have outlawed contingent fees for lawyers representing claimants and have had to cut many requested fees sharply. One lawyer, for example, asked for $25,000 -- half the federal payment; he finally settled for $2,400.
The Aldan chief's widow is one of the 302 claimants who have been turned down, many because the deaths were not "in the line of duty."
The Aldan chief, for example, was deemed "grossly negligent" in attempting to clean his pistol with six live bullets in its chambers and the gun partially disassembled. You can't be "grossly negligent" and still get paid for dying "in the line of duty," Justice said.
That didn't satisfy the widow or her lawyer. They have taken the case all the way to the U.S. Court of Claims, where it is pending.
Many other claimants have been turned down because the deaths were caused by "occupational diseases," such as heart attacks, which the law's administrators argue Congress said could not be used as the basis for a payment.
In October 1976, less than a month after the bill was signed into law by the president, a police officer in Garfield Heights, Ohio, suffered a heart attack and died after assisting with the arrest of a fugitive.
The officer and a colleague struggled two to three minutes pulling the suspected criminal from the closet in a house where he was hiding and dragging him outside to be handcuffed.
On the lawn the police officer collapsed, and he died in the hospital shortly thereafter. An autopsy showed a previously unknown severe heart condition. It also did not show any "external evidence" of injury. On this information, the claim was initially turned down.
The widow and her lawyer asked for a hearing. At this session, the widow said her husband at the hospital had bruises on his hands and shoulders and "a knot" on his head. The Justice Department administrators of the act recalled that the autopsy report showed none of this. They provided a doctor of their own, who attributed "95 percent of this man's death to his already diseased heart and 5 percent to the exercise in question."
The hearing examiner ruled for the claimant but was overruled by the benefits administrator. This case, too, is now in the Court of Claims.
Firefighters, who are also covered by the act, present even more complex health cases, according to the administrators. They even brought in a health panel to determine how much carbon monoxide in a person's system -- inhaled from a fire -- could be used as a benchmark for causing death, since experts varied on that subject.
There are still 172 cases awaiting initial decision under the act, and 11 appeals already are before the Court of Claims.