The police officer who died saving a president

Officer Leslie Coffelt distinguished himself as the only Secret Service member who died saving the president

A common trope in films and TV shows is the Secret Service diving in front of the president to stop a would-be assassin.

Yet, in one hundred and fifty years of existence, how many times has a Secret Service agent actually had to take a bullet for the commander in chief? Four. This has a lot to do with the fact that anyone who attempts to take on the Secret Service is either insane or has a death wish.

One of them was White House Officer Leslie Coffelt*, who distinguished himself as the only Secret Service member who has died saving the President.

Leslie Coffelt.
Leslie Coffelt. (Photo/Public Domain)

It was November 1st, 1950. President Harry Truman was taking a nap in the Blair House instead of the White House due to ongoing renovations. Unknown to him and the guards around the house, two men were about to make their day very interesting. Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola wanted to draw attention to the independence movement going on in Puerto Rico. Naturally they figured assassinating the US president was a good way to go about that. Their plan? Quickly overwhelm and surprise the officers guarding the house before entering it and killing the president. Having walked by the house earlier in the day, they felt confident in their plan.

Leslie Coffelt was stationed at one of the guard booths on the corner of the house at the time of the attempt. Collazo kicked it off by shooting Officer Donald Birdzell standing at the front of the house. The response was swift - within seconds, the area was swarming with Secret Service agents. The biggest gunfight in Secret Service history had just begun.

Torresola, who had been standing by Coffelt's guard booth, whipped out a Luger pistol and shot Coffelt four times. Coffelt slumped to the ground, seriously injured. Torresola moved on to join his partner, shooting Officer Joseph Downs in the process. Once Torresola reached Collazo, they shot several more officers, including Birdzell again.

By this time the commotion had awoken President Truman who wandered to a window to take a gander at his attackers, before being ordered back by his guards.

With both attackers on the doorstep to the President’s house, it seemed only a matter of time before they gained entry. Fortunately, Coffelt was not out of the fight yet. In a scene reminiscent of a Michael Bay film, Coffelt struggled his way up, profusely bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds. He raised his service pistol and took aim at Torresola. Coffelt fired a single shot right through Torresola's head, killing him instantly before passing out from the pain.

Collazo, now alone, was shot several times by the remaining officers before surrendering. Coffelt was rushed to a hospital where he died several hours later in surgery. He would be given a hero's funeral at Arlington Cemetery as the only Secret Service agent to be killed protecting the president, and one of only four (along with Birdzell and Downs in this same incident) to be shot while guarding the president.

The only other one was Agent Tim McCarthy during the 1981 attempt on President Reagan.

President Truman, now the only president to have someone give their life to protect him, was reportedly never the same. It has been speculated that one of the reasons he chose not run for President again in 1952 was due to Leslie Coffelt's sacrifice to save his life.

*At the time, the White House Police was part of the uniformed division of the US Secret Service.

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