A 30-year-old border agent was shot and killed early today while checking on a triggered ground sensor with two other agents near Bisbee, officials said.
Nicholas Ivie was one of three agents working on foot about 2 a.m. when someone opened fire on them, killing Ivie and wounding another agent. The third agent was not injured.
The shooting took place about five miles north of the border and seven miles east of Bisbee south of Arizona Highway 80, Cochise County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Carol Capas said. Agents and deputies are spending the day combing through the area south of the highway and northwest of Paul Spur Road, in the southern foothills of the Mule Mountains.
They are processing the scene, but they are not pursuing a suspect, she said
Officials provided little new information at a press conference at the Border Patrol's Naco station this afternoon.
James Turgal, the FBI's special agent in charge in Phoenix, said it could take investigators a few days to finish processing the crime scene. He declined to answer any questions about the shooting or what it meant in a larger perspective, saying multiple times he wanted to "stay on message" about the tragic loss of life.
"Last night's event demonstrated the danger law enforcement officers face every day along the southwest border everyday," Turgal said.
Asked about a report that Mexican officials have two suspects in custody, Turgal said he didn't want to talk about it to prevent prejudicing anything U.S. and Mexican officials are working on.
Jeff Self, Arizona joint field commander for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, got choked up during his brief statements. He said Agent Ivie died at the "hands of criminals operating" near Naco and that he died protecting the nations from those "who threaten our way of life."
Self and Turgal offered their condolences to agent Ivie's wife and two children, both young girls.
Ivie had been with the Border Patrol since January 2008 and was originally from Provo, Utah, the agency said.
Ivie was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served as a lay counselor who helped his ward's bishop, said Dr. Jarrett Hamilton, a fellow member of the church.
Hamilton spoke with Ivie about 6 p.m. Monday, only hours before the shooting, he said. They were discussing a tithe that Hamilton's young son had offered at church the previous day, Hamilton said.
"It’s such a tragic loss, and I’m so sad," Hamilton said.
The wounded agent was airlifted to University Medical Center. He was shot in the ankle and buttocks and suffered non-life threatening injuries. He came out of surgery this morning and was doing well, said Art del Cueto, president of the National Border Patrol Council's union local in Tucson.
The incident is being investigated by the Cochise County Sheriff's Office and the FBI. Throughout Tuesday, agents and deputies combed the area near the shooting site on horseback, all-terrain vehicles and on foot. Helicopters were also sweeping over the hilltops.
Investigators have minimal information about the suspect or suspects, Capas said.
The agents were assigned to the Naco station, which was recently renamed in honor of Brian Terry, who was slain in a shootout with border bandits in December 2010 near Nogales. That shooting was later linked to the Fast and Furious gun-smuggling operation run by federal agents in Phoenix.
Responding to a triggered sensor is a routine part of an agent's daily shift, said del Cueto, the National Border Patrol Council's union local president. Agents know by the location of a sensor whether that place is usually used by drug traffickers or people smugglers.
When they respond to a sensor, they're in a heightened state of alert, del Cueto said.
Ivie is the 11th agent to die on duty in the Tucson Sector since 1924, and the first since agent Terry was killed in December 2010. He is the third agent shot to death since Alexander Kirpnick was killed northwest of Nogales in 1998.
The area of Tuesday's shooting is a traditional corridor for drug smuggling, located as it is in a remote pocket between Bisbee, Naco, Douglas and the border, said Lee Morgan II, who retired as a U.S. Customs special agent in 2006 after spending decades in the area.
Area residents say the number of common illegal border crossers has plummeted in that corridor since 2008, when the border fence there was completed and the recession caused job opportunities to dwindle.
Fred Giacoletti's family homesteaded 800 acres in the area, about a half mile from the border. He's noticed the number of regular illegal immigrants decrease, but the drug smuggling activity has continued, he said. He doesn't like it, but he's committed to the area.
"I could move my family any time, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to move these 800 acres, so I’m stuck here," he said.
Resident Cynthia Binyon lives near where agents were investigating the shootings this morning. She said she feels safe living in the area.
"If somebody just killed a resident on Border Road, that would be a whole different thing. But they (Border Patrol agents) are out there encountering people," she said.