The ground where migrants suffer and die is “sacred” and leaving water for them is a religious act, a border aid volunteer testified as his trial began Monday in Tucson federal court.

Scott Warren, 36, is the last of nine volunteers with Tucson-based No More Deaths who faced misdemeanor charges related to leaving humanitarian aid in 2017 on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge west of Tucson.

Warren is accused of driving on unauthorized roads in the wildlife refuge in June 2017 and leaving water jugs and food for migrants. He faces misdemeanor charges of driving a vehicle in a wilderness area and abandoning property there.

In January, four volunteers who faced similar charges were convicted of entering the refuge in August 2017 without a permit and abandoning property. One of the volunteers also was convicted of driving in a wilderness area. They were sentenced in March to 15 months probation, fined $150 and banned from the refuge.

In late February, four other volunteers pleaded guilty to a civil infraction of entering a wildlife refuge without a permit. They each were fined $280. They entered the refuge in search of three people reported missing during a border-crossing attempt in July 2017.

On Monday, Warren testified he was exercising sincerely-held religious beliefs by providing aid to migrants while volunteering with No More Deaths, a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.

Dozens of sets of human remains believed to belong to migrants have been recovered in the desert near Ajo, including 18 sets of remains Warren said he helped find. The fact that so many people have died near Ajo is “unconscionable to me and it requires me to act and to do something,” he said.

He leaves water and food near places where human remains were recovered, with the goal of preventing more deaths, he said. For migrants who have suffered or died there, Warren said, “Their spirit continues to dwell in that place.”

Many migrants die alone in the desert, often after being separated from their group, injured, or dehydrated, Warren testified.

“There was nobody there to witness them when they died,” he said. By serving as a witness to their death, it provides a “spiritual completion for them.”

When he finds human remains, he performs a ritual. He faces the remains, offers a “silent acknowledgment,” and then turns away, he testified.

“I kneel down and pick up two handfuls of dirt or rocks or whatever kind of soil it is,” he said. “I’ll hold that in my hands, mash it together. In my mind, that’s the act of holding that ground, holding that place in my hand, holding it tight.

“Then letting go of it is, in my mind, an act of holding that person and then releasing them,” Warren said.

Earlier on Monday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Officer Jose Luis Valenzuela testified he came across a pickup and an SUV parked by a road on the wildlife refuge that was not open to the public.

He saw three one-gallon jugs of water and food placed near a rescue beacon, which was installed by the Border Patrol. He also saw several green milk crates in the back of the pickup.

Valenzuela said he continued down a trail and found a cache of water jugs, milk crates, medical supplies, cookies, skin cream and other items. He went back to the vehicles and soon four people, including Warren, walked back to the pickup.

They told Valenzuela they were “performing humanitarian efforts,” he testified.

After Valenzuela’s testimony, defense lawyer Amy Knight asked Judge Raner C. Collins to acquit Warren on the charge of abandoning property.

Valenzuela testified he did not see Warren leave water or other items, nor did he ask Warren if any of the items were his, Knight said.

When Warren said “humanitarian efforts,” he could have been referring to a search-and-rescue mission instead of leaving supplies, Knight said.

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Knight said 13 people had obtained visitor permits that day and the only connections between the supplies and Warren were the green milk crates in his truck, which are widely available. She also noted the three volunteers with Warren were not charged.

Knight argued the government failed to show Warren meant to abandon the property, which would imply he never intended to return for it. No More Deaths volunteers keep meticulous logs of water jugs they leave for migrants and retrieve jugs when they leave more supplies.

Knight questioned whether the tent of a camper who took a walk or the food cached by hikers also would be considered abandoned.

Federal prosecutor Nathaniel Walters said the government had presented “more than enough circumstantial evidence” to convict Warren of abandoning property. Walters noted the presence of supplies in the truck and at the site in the desert. The supplies also showed no sign of sun damage or dirt, indicating they were recently placed at the site.

When Warren said he was a member of No More Deaths and performing humanitarian aid, it was “fair to infer” he was leaving supplies, Walters said.

Collins denied Knight’s motion, saying it was a “reasonable inference” by Valenzuela to connect Warren with the supplies.

Warren’s trial is scheduled to last through Wednesday.

Later this month, Warren also is scheduled to go on trial on felony human-smuggling charges.

Border Patrol agents found two men who crossed the border illegally in January 2018 at an aid building in Ajo, according to court records. Warren is accused of harboring them during an illegal border-crossing attempt.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar