The legacy of FBI Special Agent Danny Knapp spread like a flash flood.
Inspirational stories of the late agent arose from villages in Puerto Rico, field offices in government buildings and living rooms between San Juan and Las Vegas. He’d given money to the poor, volunteered endlessly at his church, saved lives that hadn’t been reported and served in myriad ways that never earned him medals or commendations.
Not long before his death, Knapp entered a brutally dangerous neighborhood to help a distressed woman in labor. Knapp took her to the hospital, helped her through the delivery and even paid the hospital bill. When asked by the FBI why he'd taken the chance, he replied, "If not me, who?"
It was nothing — just another rescue.
Why hadn't more of these heroics surfaced during his life? Knapp's grieving colleagues in the field said he lived his life in the "arrogant-free zone." Wouldn't we all like to be remembered that way?
Other stories came from Danny’s four brothers. Each missed their brother in their own unique way and dealt with his death by reminiscing often. Michael, just a few years older than Danny, was especially stung by the accident. For personal reasons, he’d chosen not to attend the services in San Juan and hadn’t had the opportunity to meet Hector Gonzalez, the beneficiary of Danny’s heroics.
Unlike the other brothers, Michael’s life had taken a different path from Danny’s. At age 17, Michael chose to step away from the faith of his childhood and swim in deeper waters. He never lost a testimony that the only church he’d ever known was true; he simply realized he’d never actually been converted. He recognized that membership and conversion are two very different things.
For 27 years Michael remained inactive, a period he calls being “unplugged.” To his credit, Michael acknowledges that Danny’s death was more difficult than it might have been had his spiritual muscles not atrophied.
Michael was astonished with each new truth that surfaced from Danny’s remarkable life. He hadn’t fully realized and respected how his little brother had become a professional and spiritual giant to so many. His love of God, country and mankind awed him.
Then on Easter morning, 2012, Michael remembers slowly descending the stairs of his home in a quiet Seattle suburb. It had been months since he’d heard Danny’s voice and exactly 90 days since Danny had given his life for Hector Gonzalez. Suddenly, as he neared the bottom step, a voice stopped him in his tracks.
The words were crystal clear: “You need to be in church.”
It felt like a spiritual punch to the gut — exactly the kind a sneak attack a playful sibling might launch on an unsuspecting brother.
To the shock of his wife and children who were socializing downstairs, Michael reversed course, hiked back up the stairs and put on a suit. Then he found the closest chapel — not even sure which LDS ward he was supposed to attend — and walked in the doors.
Michael Knapp sat on the back pew, hoping to be as anonymous as possible. But like old friends apart for far too long, Michael and the Spirit recognized one another immediately. In a phone interview, Michael described the spirit as “undeniable and overpowering” that day.
After sacrament meeting, Michael slipped into the first Sunday School class he found. As it began, an elderly man with Parkinson's disease sat by him and, as is common with sufferers, began shaking. Even now, one year later, Michael still cannot explain how on that Easter Sunday, something prompted him to do exactly as his brother Danny had done in the waters off Puerto Rico.
Michael slid over and put his arm around a man he’d never met. Almost immediately, the elderly man was weeping.
A year has passed and Michael doesn’t remember who spoke that day or what was taught, he just remembers feeling — at last — that he was home. One week later Michael asked his wife, Deborah, who was not LDS, to attend with him. When I asked Michael why, his answer was a glimpse at an eternal truth: "It felt wrong sitting in church without my wife sitting next to me."
For Deborah, attending sacrament meeting was also like coming home. They attended weekly for two months until she decided it was time to meet with the full-time missionaries. Then, during one of their lessons, Deborah blurted without invitation, “I’ll be baptized on Sept. 15!”
Dressed in white, Michael led his wife into the waters of baptism and performed the sacred, saving ordinance. The couple soon scheduled their date for a visit to the temple to be sealed for time and eternity, to occur as soon as they are eligible.
During our discussions, I wondered what lesson Deborah learned from her brother-in-law that changed her life the most. Her answer was emphatic. "Shortly after Danny's death, his FBI partner told us that Danny wasn't afraid of being shot or going into a big drug bust, but that his greatest fear was losing the Spirit. I didn’t know what ‘the Spirit’ meant at the time, but I knew that it must be very important. This was huge for me in my conversion and, to this day, the biggest change in my life since my baptism has been the gift of the Holy Ghost."
I also asked Michael and Deborah Knapp what role they thought Danny had played in their spiritual rescue. While they don't pretend to know all the mysteries of God, both are certain that Danny has been swimming alongside them. "It's like he's been holding our spiritual heads above water," Michael said.
Before his death, Danny reported to the family that he’d had a dream one day after attending the Salt Lake Temple that the entire family, including each and every sibling, would be gathered together in that sacred place.
On Oct. 12, 2013, Michael Knapp says that dream will come to pass. And to think, they wonder, that it all started with a voice on the stairs on Easter morning.
The delicious irony is lost to no one: On the day we celebrate the Resurrection of the Savior, Michael’s own faith was reborn.
Make no mistake — Danny may have played a key role in nudging his brother back to safer spiritual water, but Michael and his wife Deborah deserve the credit for their strong swimming. They’ve done remarkable things and like the rest of the vast Knapp family, they serve both the Lord and the church they love with all their hearts each and every day.
Somewhere above, Danny Knapp continues watching over David and his new kidney, willing him on to a long, fruitful life.
Somewhere above, Danny is rooting for Hector Gonzalez to realize his dreams of a family, a career in the FBI and a life of selfless service.
Somewhere above, Danny is smiling at his brother Michael as he prepares to join the rest of his family in the Lord’s house this fall. Danny’s certainly proud of his parents and other brothers as well, and for the good they contribute to the world around them.13 comments on this story
Mostly, Danny is likely embarrassed by the recent attention, wishing to deflect the praise to others. There is no doubt he would shun the glory and guide it gracefully to God.
As for the rest of us who never met Danny in this life, we’re simply left to consider his example. Who can we better serve? Who can we watch over? Who can we better love?
Because in the end, it’s all about the rescue.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters," and "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jasonfwright.com.