Tim Steller: Shootings by border agents: Cases drag on and on

US officials' delays leave accused, alleged victims with lives on hold
2013-03-20T00:00:00Z 2013-03-20T11:05:28Z Tim Steller: Shootings by border agents: Cases drag on and onTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 20, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Thursday marks two years since U.S. Border Patrol Agent Lucas Tidwell shot and killed Carlos LaMadrid at the border fence in Douglas.

As the second anniversary arrives, prosecutors still are not saying whether they plan to pursue any charges against Tidwell.

This is a pattern after shootings by Border Patrol agents - federal officials have taken more than three years to consider charges in one case. And it's a problem.

The irresolution of the case means Tidwell remains in suspended animation, under a cloud of suspicion though he continues working as an agent at a new station.

"It takes a huge personal toll," his attorney, Sean Chapman, said of the long investigations of agents. "Of all the agents I've represented, most end up with PTSD. It's a lot of stress."

Guadalupe Guerrero, LaMadrid's mother, is also frustrated by the ambiguity she's enduring.

"They haven't resolved anything for me. They haven't told me anything," Guerrero said in Spanish Tuesday.

Guerrero has sued Tidwell in federal court, but that can't be resolved either. The reason: Tidwell refuses to be interviewed for the civil case until he's cleared of criminal conduct.

The Cochise county attorney, Ed Rheinheimer, has decided whether to pursue state charges, but he's waiting to announce his decision until federal prosecutors make their decision. As has been the pattern in these cases, they're taking their time.

Until Department of Justice attorneys make up their minds, the federal attorneys defending Tidwell in the civil case and Guerrero's attorney, Rick Gonzales, don't have a firm basis for negotiating to resolve the case.

"This incident is not murky," Gonzales told me this week. "The facts are not in dispute. It should not be taking two years to make a decision to decide whether there was a civil-rights violation or a criminal violation."

Indeed, local police reports, together with two Border Patrol videos of the incident, tell a clear story of what happened that day.

About noon on that Monday, a Douglas resident called police after seeing someone load bundles of marijuana into a gold-colored Chevrolet Avalanche and drive away. When a Douglas police officer tried to pull the vehicle over, the driver sped toward the border instead.

The day was very windy, filling the air with dust and shaking the camera towers that monitor the border.

Still, the video of the incident clearly shows a Border Patrol vehicle driven by Tidwell colliding with the Avalanche, driven by LaMadrid, at the border fence. LaMadrid, 19, gets out of the Avalanche to climb a ladder leaned against the U.S. side of the fence by friends in Agua Prieta, the Sonoran city across the line. As LaMadrid climbs the fence, Tidwell exits his vehicle and points his arm at the fence.

That's when he fired.

A Douglas police officer arrived soon after the collision and saw the whole incident. The Douglas police reports say the officer saw LaMadrid run to the ladder and climb up as two other people sat atop the fence and threw rocks at the agent.

One of the young men on the fence stepped down on the top rung of the ladder to help LaMadrid climb up, the report says, when LaMadrid was shot and fell. The young man also fell down on the U.S. side.

The winds prevented a helicopter from taking LaMadrid to Tucson, and he died at the Sierra Vista Regional Health Center.

The Cochise County Sheriff's Office and FBI have finished investigating the matter.

The U.S. Attorney's Office is tasked with deciding whether to file homicide, assault or related charges against Tidwell, and it would not comment on the case. The Justice Department's civil-rights division is charged with deciding whether Tidwell violated the civil rights of LaMadrid, a U.S. citizen, and it did not answer my questions.

Back in December, I asked the special agent in charge of the FBI's Phoenix division, James Turgal, why these cases are taking so long to resolve.

"Most of the reason why those cases are still ongoing, and there is no decision made public, is because the U.S. Attorney's Office or the DOJ is trying to determine whether they're going to move toward a prosecution. In most cases, we the FBI have completed those cases long ago," he said.

This isn't good enough, especially considering the growing presence of the Border Patrol, which has more than 4,000 agents in Southern Arizona, and the relative frequency of shootings. Since LaMadrid's death, Border Patrol agents have shot at least five other people in Arizona.

The number isn't particularly high, compared with the number of shootings by agencies such as the Tucson Police Department. But some of the cases raise real questions of whether the agents acted appropriately.

The public, the agents and the victims' families deserve to know where the authorities fall in these cases.

Justice delayed is justice denied, whoever is waiting for it.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter.

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