The FBI has ruled out friendly fire in the Dec. 14 fatal shooting of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, and three of the four men apprehended that night have been cleared in connection with the crime.
FBI spokesman Manuel Johnson said Tuesday that there is no evidence at all that Terry was shot and killed by fellow Border Patrol agents during the deadly gunfight with bandits northwest of Nogales. His statement puts to rest one aspect of speculation about the events that led to Terry's death.
The clearing of the three illegal immigrants from Mexico - who are pleading guilty to immigration charges and being set up for deportation this week - leaves one man in custody who was arrested the night of the shootout.
He is a 34-year-old Mexican man who was wounded in the shootout, Border Patrol officials said. He is charged with illegal re-entry after deportation and is awaiting a trial scheduled for March 8, said Heather Williams of the Federal Public Defender's Office in Tucson. Williams said she has not been notified if the U.S. Attorney's Office plans to charge him in connection with the shooting.
U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Robbie Sherwood wouldn't say if the man will be charged in connection with the agent's slaying. He said the decision to let the other three go back to Mexico was based on evidence.
"Based upon an extensive investigation conducted to date, there is no evidence tying these three individuals to the shooting of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry" Sherwood said in an e-mail.
Leslie Bowman, a Tucson attorney representing one of the three men who has been cleared, said the three men just happened to be crossing illegally in the same area where the shooting occurred and had nothing to do with the gunfight.
Before his plea hearing began Tuesday afternoon at the Evo A. DeConcini Courthouse in Tucson, Bowman's 29-year-old client greeted her with a big smile and hug.
"He has maintained his innocence from the moment of his arrest," Bowman. "He's relieved that justice was served."
The man was given time served, which amounted to 63 days, and released to immigration authorities for deportation to Mexico. At a plea hearing earlier in the day at the courthouse, a 19-year-old from Mexico also received time served and was set up for deportation.
"My client is very happy," said his attorney, Edward Laber.
The third man, a 21-year-old from Mexico, has a change-of-plea hearing scheduled for today, at which time he is expected to plead guilty to immigration charges and be deported.
The Arizona Daily Star is withholding the names of the four men because they were not charged in connection with Terry's shooting.
The investigation is ongoing as investigators and prosecutors aim to bring criminal charges against the people responsible for Terry's murder, Sherwood said in a statement.
"We continue to devote significant resources and manpower to this investigation," Sherwood said. "This investigation is extremely active and progressing."
Agent Terry's family in Michigan remains frustrated with the investigation. The FBI's statement discounting friendly fire as a possibility didn't do anything to temper their dissatisfaction.
"They say that, but they won't show us ballistics or the autopsy report to prove that," said Kent Terry, the agent's 43-year-old older brother. "We've asked for them, and they said they couldn't give them to us."
While in Arizona last month for Terry's public memorial, the family met in a hotel with officials from the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office, Kent Terry said. The family asked many questions, but authorities told family members they couldn't answer them because of the ongoing investigation, he said.
"We are left in the dark about everything," Terry said. "Honestly, I think there's blood on their hands, and they are trying to sweep it under the rug."
Terry, 40, was the 10th agent to die on duty in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector since 1926 and the first agent shot to death since 1998. Terry was buried in his hometown of Detroit on Dec. 22, and hundreds attended his memorial service last month in Tucson.
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org