Correction appended: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Magee worked as a federal agent in the jungles of Bogotá, Colombia. Magee worked instead in the city of Bogotá and nearby jungles in Colombia.
Ken Magee, the new director of the University’s Department of Public Safety, can still remember a quieter, simpler Ann Arbor.
He can remember his youth, riding bikes down Washtenaw Avenue with a group of friends, on their way to the Michigan Union to grab a Coke from one of those old-timey vending machines or go bowling in the basement.
He can remember double scoops at Miller’s Ice Cream Shop on South University Avenue, or catching butterflies in the Arb, wielding an empty tin can tied to a stick with some string.
He can remember sweeping the floors of Crisler Arena during Michigan basketball games, and how his parents — both avid Michigan fans — dressed him in maize and blue as a little boy.
He can remember, too, leaving Ann Arbor, for a more fast-paced world beyond US-23 and M-14.
And now, with over 25 years of law enforcement experience, from the Jackson Police Department to the jungles of Colombia, Magee returns to Ann Arbor, giving more than just a fresh face to the 38-year-old department — he brings with him an intense passion for a school and a community he has always called home.
“I have a deep love for my community. And although I’ve been away for a while, I would come here, this is where I would come for vacations, this is where I would spend summers and bring my daughter to meet friends, this is where I was born, and this is where I want to die,” Magee said.
Magee has worked undercover in Detroit and as a federal agent at the Olympics. He has hunted Pablo Escobar, one of the world’s most notorious drug lords, and Escobar’s Medellin Cartel in Colombia. He has captured a top 10 fugitive for the FBI. He has received the Administrator’s Award of Honor — the highest award granted by the Drug Enforcement Administration — twice.
And now, more than two decades later, Magee carries with him the same mindset as he begins overseeing this campus’s safety.
“I would like to make the place safer than it already is,” Magee said. “I want to enhance the department to make it more visible, to look at the police officers as partners in the whole social sector of government services.
“I want people to feel very comfortable,” he added, “from the youngest freshman to the oldest grad student.”
In March of last year, Bill Bess, the director of DPS at the time, announced his retirement. Shortly after, Hank Baier, associate vice president of Facilities and Operations, appointed a search committee to find a replacement for Bess as the head of DPS.
After screening about 250 candidates from colleges and universities across the country, the committee’s search was eventually scaled down to six. Those six were brought to Ann Arbor to be interviewed in person. The number was then cut to two, leaving Laura Wilson, chief of police at Stanford University, and Magee as the final candidates for the position.
“When we saw Ken Magee,” Baier said in an interview this month, “what was most intriguing to us, he has a professional resume, but most impressive to us was he grew up in the community.”
Magee was born in Ann Arbor in 1958 and grew up in his parent’s home just off of Hill Street. His father, a neurologist at the University Hospital and a professor in the Medical School, and his mother, who received her master’s degree in social work from the University, indoctrinated him in the ways of maize and blue at a very young age.
“When you’re born and raised in this town, you develop a very, very deep interest and love and affection for the University,” Magee said with a grin. “As a little boy growing up, the campus was my playground. I would ride my bike down to the Diag every day.”
“You’d ride your bike to a vending machine somewhere on campus, whether it be at the Union or whatever,” he said. “As an eight- or nine-year-old boy you could do that back then.”
Magee began his education as a young boy at Angell Elementary on South University Avenue, and later attended Tappan Junior High, finally graduating from Huron High School in 1975.
After high school, Magee moved to East Lansing and enrolled in Michigan State University, beginning the first phase of a 33-year-long journey that would eventually bring him right back to where he started.
Magee received his bachelor’s in criminal justice from MSU in 1979, graduating with high honors. The summer after graduation he attended the police academy at Grand Valley State University where he was elected student body president, graduating at the top of his class.
“I enjoyed the heck out of it,” Magee said of his time at the academy. “And then I was fortunate enough, shortly thereafter, almost a year later, to be hired by the Jackson Michigan Police Department.”
Magee spent four years in Jackson — four emotional, trying years. Four years that found him laid off for a period of time due to budget cuts. Four years that produced two shootings — one of which was a half a world away — that both greatly affected his career. And four years that helped to shape and define his life.
In February of 1982, Craig Scott, a 28-year-old Michigan state trooper, pulled over a speeding car on U.S. Route 127, just outside of Jackson. After the driver failed to produce a registration for the vehicle, which turned out to be stolen, Scott attempted to place him under arrest.
As Scott was helping the suspect into the back of his patrol car, the passenger of the vehicle pulled a .38-calibre revolver from his back pocket, snuck up behind the trooper and fired three rounds into his back from three feet away.
At the time of the incident, Magee was driving along the highway on his way to MSU for a graduate school course in criminal justice.
When he saw Scott’s abandoned patrol car on the side of the road, Magee pulled over and exited his vehicle, stumbling upon the fallen state trooper.
“I got out, I rendered first aid to trooper Scott and got on his police radio and radioed out our location,” Magee said. “And Craig, he died in my arms on the way to the hospital.”
Magee believed Scott passed away in the ambulance. He was officially declared dead two minutes after the ambulance arrived at the hospital.
After leaving Jackson in 1983, Magee applied to become a federal agent, receiving his first post in Detroit.
As an undercover agent for the DEA, Magee worked on the largest cocaine and marijuana bust in the history of Michigan, confiscating nearly 600 kilograms of cocaine and about 9 tons of marijuana on Sept. 3, 1987.
Magee was transferred to Bogotá, Colombia in 1988, starting a two-year tour of duty that would eventually turn into seven.
In Bogotá, Magee worked for the DEA, searching for Rene Benitez, the man responsible for kidnapping and shooting two federal agents.
In February of 1982, the same month that Magee held the dying state trooper in his arms along the side of the road, DEA agents Charles Martinez and Kelley McCullough were kidnapped from their hotel rooms in Cartagena, Colombia by drug traffickers, taken to a remote location and shot at point blank range.
And although they were shot multiple times, Martinez in the hip and through the chest and McCullough in the knee, groin and through the neck, both agents escaped and recovered from their wounds.
“I was very, very adamant that that was one of my goals as an agent assigned to Bogotá, to see Rene Benitez brought to justice,” Magee said. “I promised (Martinez and McCullough) I would not forget what happened to them.”
After years of working on the case, Magee eventually caught Benitez seven years later, in October 1995, calling it “one of the proudest moments” of his career.
In 1996, one year after Benitez was captured, Magee was assigned to work at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Magee’s only night off during his time in Atlanta was the night of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, which killed one spectator and wounded 111 others.
“It just so happened I was very near the bomb when the bomb went off,” Magee said. “I worked on the little girl that lived, and I worked on her mother that died.”
Several years later, Magee was selected as the only federal agent to testify against Eric Rudolph, the man responsible for the bombing.
And then on April 16, 2002, while he was stationed in the Pacific Northwest, working as a supervisor for the DEA, Magee received news that his older brother, Bobby, had died of a drug overdose.
But despite the obvious emotional and psychological damages that come with losing a loved one, a brother, Magee has taken the experience and used it for good.
“I figured it would be advantageous to take personal tragedies and turn them into professional treasures,” Magee said. “And that’s what’s happened in my family, and some of the things I’ve seen with my own eyes. Take those personal tragedies and make professional treasures by utilizing those stories and examples to interact with young people, or people who have substance abuse problems.”
That is something Magee continually stresses, using misfortune, using personal tragedies and taking those experiences to help the people around you.
For Magee, it’s not about the adventure and the mystique. It’s not about the awards or the recognition either. It’s about the people, helping them feel safe and secure.
So instead of slowing down and settling in at the age of 50, when federal agents are eligible to retire, Magee knew he was going to continue to use his more than 25 years of experience, and he knew exactly where he was going to use it.
“That’s why I came home,” Magee said. “It is home and it’s a wonderful place to be and I bring a lot of those experiences that I had on the road, for many, many years, almost three decades.”
Magee didn’t know in what sort of capacity he would be working in Ann Arbor, he just knew that he wanted to come back to the place of his childhood. Magee said it was just a matter of coincidence that when he decided to return, the position at the University was available.
And with just a couple of months as the department’s new head, Magee said he already has a clear vision to enhance the department.
“My goal is to bring additional investigative expertise here, my goal is to eventually take a fresh look at substance abuse problems and problems that occur here within the community,” Magee said. “My goal, additionally, is to take a look at other crime-fighting techniques that we might have for use in the whole public safety arena.”
Magee’s philosophical approach to law enforcement, he said, depends on three basic things: “Imagine a problem, be proactive and be creative to try and figure out a solution to the problem before it occurs,” he said.
One of his main goals, starting day one, he said, is to increase the visibility of DPS. Magee said he wants students, faculty and the entire campus community to see the department’s presence on campus.
“As important as it is to be safe, it’s equally important to feel safe,” he said, “because it gives you peace of mind.”
So as he settles in to his new office, unpacks a couple of plaques and tosses away a few more, Magee understands that he’s beginning a new chapter of his life, one that, he hopes, will be his last.
“I plan on being here a long time, this is not a stepping stone for me,” he said. “Everything I did for the last 30 years was a stepping stone to get here and to be here and be fortunate enough to get this position.”