Retired Detroit ATF Agent James Culver, Dies at 84: Helped Take Down City's Major Drug Gangs

November 30, 2023, 12:00 PM

James Culver was a former Detroit Police officer who went on to become an agent and supervisor in Detroit at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). He helped take down some of Detroit's biggest drug organizations. Culver, who retired in 1995, died on Wednesday at age 84.

This tribute was written by former ATF agent Joe Slatalla on behalf of former fellow agents, Jerry Sharpe, Kevin Zott, Phil Awe, Stan Brue, Bob Schmitt, Jeff Perryman and Tom Brandon, who all worked for Culver.

By Joe Slatalla

James Culiver

Today, a real hero, a truly great man, has been lost to us.  Not just by those who knew and loved and respected him, but by an entire city, and by our calling.  James B. Culver.  Jim to everyone, "Curly" to his crew, has passed away.

Jim Culver was the epitome of a renaissance man.  He was tough and hard, committed, ethical, loyal, loving, caring, brilliant in so many ways.  Most of all, a true leader in word and deed.

Jim Culver was a great man, husband and father, friend, and as good a cop that ever lived. In baseball, they call that a five-tool player. In life, to those of us he touched, we just called him Curly.  Because he was bald.  That’s what we do.  We make fun, to push down the emotions we don’t want to admit. The truth is, Curly inspired the best emotions and efforts in those blessed to have been caught in his wake.

Jim had the calling. He was a Detroit cop first, and forever. He was an ATF Special Agent later.  He was always the shepherd.  Along the way, he inspired, taught, protected, and led those around him.  He was one of those people that commanded the room without arrogance or ego.  One of the very, very few guys that everyone wanted to sit next to or get an “attaboy” from.  He didn’t give those out lightly, yet exuded humility.  If you had a beer with Jim, you knew you’d been somewhere.  Just don’t brag about it.

(L-r) James Culver, Harper Woods detective and ATF agent Tom Brandon (1993)

Curly lived respect, and hard work and accountability, and expected the same all from those around him.  He made everyone feel like the most important person in the world when he spoke with you. He never spoke at you. He spoke to you. He didn’t disparage.  He spoke to you.  Those of us that worked with him and for him loved him, and he made us better people and cops and agents as we tried to live up to his example.

Jim Culver was ahead of his time in law enforcement. For the obligatory epitaph, he led men and women through doors and over hurdles and through complicated investigations, using every old-school and advanced resource and technique available, to make great cases and protect the public. 

He cared about his city, and the city’s people, the neighborhoods where people live and work and laugh and cry and sweat and bleed.  He cared about his people.

Last Dec. (L-R) Jerry Sharpe, Kevin Zott, Jim Culver, Phil Awe, Tom Brandon

His crews led cases on YBI and the Chambers brothers and the Best Friends, Clifford Jones, Demetrious Holloway and White Boy Rick (aka Richard Wershe Jr), and a bunch of other major, violent doper crews that terrorized the city and her neighborhoods and her people in the eighties and nineties in Detroit.  Those names shouldn’t be mentioned with his. But they have to be, because he was the heart and soul that led and allowed his crews to make those cases.  And at the heart of it all, he cared about and loved Detroit.

So many people in Detroit will never know the impact Jim had on the great Motor City, and especially on those he knew and love him.  But so many people slept safer, even if for a night, when Jim was at the gate.

The telling and compelling stories of Jim’s relationships, both family and on the job, are endless, but not for the public’s eyes and ears. They’re personal and private. They’re substantial for their impact on us all.  He never wanted or asked for publicity or accolades. James B. Culver holds a monument in our hearts.  He’s the first bust on the Mt. Rushmore for cops.  Jim made everything safe. He served us all better than we might deserve.

God bless and good night, Curly.  We love you.

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