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Steller column: Tucson priest's arrest casts doubt on assaults on border agents

When Abran Tadeo drove his RV up to a Border Patrol checkpoint west of Tucson, it was his third inspection in the last couple of hours.

On that day in December 2016, he and his family were returning to Tucson from a beach trip to Rocky Point and had been inspected at the Lukeville border crossing. They’d also gone through a Border Patrol checkpoint about 20 miles north of the border along Arizona 85. And now they were pulling into another Border Patrol checkpoint near Three Points.

“I drove up to the checkpoint and opened the window to say, ‘We’re U.S. citizens,’” Tadeo told me last week. The agent “insisted on wanting to hear from everyone in the car. I say, ‘We’re all U.S. citizens.’”

When the agents didn’t accept Tadeo’s declaration, the situation started to devolve.

“This is the third time. We’re getting harassed,” Tadeo told the agents. One agent denied that, saying everyone is treated the same.

Soon the situation turned into bickering and confusion. In the end, all seven family members in the RV were detained for hours. Tadeo, 47, and his sister Andrea, 50, were each charged with assault on a federal officer.

These were two among 847 reported assaults on officers of U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. That was a 45 percent increase over the 585 incidents that CBP officers reported in fiscal year 2016. The surge in reported assaults happened at the same time total apprehensions by CBP officers on the Southwest border plunged from 563,204 to 415,191, a 26 percent decrease.

Assaults have continued in Southern Arizona this fiscal year. Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector have reported three assaults on officers since Nov. 17, including one in the Baboquivari Mountains that led to an agent shooting a border crosser who had allegedly assaulted another agent and taken his gun.

But Tadeo’s case may point to another factor: Some agents, if not their union or the agency itself, may be overeager to claim assaults.

One of the agents on the scene Dec. 28, Edmundo Lopez, reported that Tadeo “hit the gas,” striking the agent and leaving the agent “in fear for my life.”

It was a compelling story that helped justify a felony charge — except there were four videos of the incident, two from agency cameras and one each taken by Tadeo and his niece Icelia. I’ve watched those two, and both undermine what the agent claim happened.

But for 10 months that evidence didn’t matter, because Andrea and Abran Tadeo were accused of federal felonies, something that could have threatened Abran Tadeo’s career. He needed to explain his arrest to then-Bishop Gerald Kicanas.

The reason: Abran Tadeo is the parish priest at St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Catholic Church, 801 N. Grande Ave. It didn’t look good for him to be out in the world committing felonies.

But he and his attorney, Barbara Catrillo, prevailed on the bishop to understand — the charges were unfounded and would be dismissed. They were right.

Relatively few prosecutions

For years, the National Border Patrol Council has been arguing that the job agents perform is more dangerous than the public appreciates. They face unexpected dangers working in isolated locations, sometimes with difficult communications.

Even federal prosecutors have been the target of the union’s ire, for not prosecuting enough people accused of assaulting agents.

“If it’s not a slam-dunk case, they don’t want anything to do with it,” Art Del Cueto, the union head in the Tucson Sector, told my colleague Curt Prendergast in October.

If that’s true, it’s not for lack of encouragement on the part of the prosecutors’ boss. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said during an April 11 speech in Nogales, “I have directed that all 94 U.S. Attorneys Offices make the prosecution of assault on a federal law enforcement officer — that’s all of you — a top priority. If someone dares to assault one of our folks in the line of duty, they will do federal time for it.”

Still, there were only 54 prosecutions for assault on a federal officer in Arizona in fiscal year 2017, according to the Transactional Records Clearinghouse, which tracks federal criminal cases. And that includes not just Border Patrol agents but federal prison officers, Bureau of Indian Affairs officers, Forest Service rangers and other agencies.

That is a relative handful, as Del Cueto said, but the Tadeos’ case shows there may be a reason.

In a written report, Agent Lopez set up the case against Tadeo by saying that when he arrived at the RV, “I could see that Tadeo was becoming agitated and was displaying pre-assaultive indicators with labored breathing and taking in large amounts of air.”

Lopez wrote that he was standing in front of the passenger-side mirror. “The driver then hit the gas and the RV moved forward. Before I could move out of the way, the passenger side mirror struck my left shoulder. I was in fear for my life thinking the driver’s intent was to run me over.”

The videos, which I viewed at attorney Matt Schmidt’s office, undermine this story. Tadeo declined to release them for publication until he has a chance to show them and talk them over with Tucson’s new bishop, who took office Nov. 29.

The videos do show Lopez standing by the passenger-side mirror, and they show that the RV rocked when Tadeo apparently released his foot’s pressure on the brake. They don’t show any acceleration or significant forward motion. They don’t show the mirror striking Lopez. They don’t show Lopez acting as if he were in fear for his life.

What they show is that agents yelled conflicting commands at Tadeo, and Tadeo said he thought they asked him to drive forward. Then, just as the dispute was escalating, a canine handler said his dog alerted to the vehicle, indicating possible contraband inside.

“No he didn’t,” Tadeo scoffed.

Importantly, the agents then allowed him to get out of the vehicle and walk to the passenger side and try to open the back door there. They didn’t take him down or otherwise treat him like an assault suspect.

And when they said they were going to detain him and started trying to put him in cuffs, Tadeo repeatedly asked why he was being arrested. Lopez responded that they were detaining him because the dog alerted to the car. He didn’t mention any assault.

When Andrea Tadeo got out of the RV, agents were already getting ready to cuff her brother, and she was upset.

“Leave my brother alone,” she said. “What the hell?”

There was bustle in the group as Andrea apparently tried to get between the agents and her brother. At some point she appeared to touch Agent Roosevelt McKnight while trying to move past.

Lopez, in his report, says Andrea Tadeo “attacked” McKnight. The criminal complaint against her says she “pushed Agent McKnight, pulled on Agent McKnight; grabbed Agent McKnight by the shoulders, arms and neck area; and dragged Agent McKnight.”

The video is not completely clear in these moments, and it shows she was hostile, but an attack didn’t happen. She may have grabbed McKnight by a shoulder, which technically could amount to an assault, but most of the rest of that description, especially the alleged dragging of a much larger agent, appears to be an exaggeration.

Nevertheless, McKnight got a week off work for “neck pain” a few days later.

Hard-line rhetoric

The Tadeo incident took place in a transitional political moment. We had a lame-duck president, Barack Obama, in the White House, and Donald Trump was preparing to take office, having won in part by declaring he would take control of the Mexican border by building a wall there.

The National Border Patrol Council endorsed Trump early on and embraced his hard-line rhetoric on the border. Trump repeatedly mentioned its endorsement as he campaigned around the country. Its support bolstered his legitimacy.

I requested an interview with Del Cueto as well as the Tucson Sector’s new chief, Rodolfo Karisch, but they did not accept, and the CBP did not answer a series of questions I sent them last week about assaults on Border Patrol agents.

Although the union and administration have had somewhat different positions on the proposed border wall, they’ve maintained consistency in their rhetorical thrust — painting the U.S.-Mexico borderland as an out-of-control and violent area that needs to be taken back. That’s continued even though apprehensions have plunged so low that in the Tucson Sector last year there was less than one arrest per agent per month.

A tendency to jump at every opportunity to make the border look violent came into view again after a Nov. 18 incident. That night, two Border Patrol agents were found in a culvert alongside Interstate 10 in West Texas with serious head injuries. One agent, Rogelio Martinez, later died of his injuries.

Union officials quickly declared the case a murder.

Del Cueto, who also serves as a national union spokesman, told El Paso TV station KTSM the agents “were out there responding to a sensor, and one agent was murdered. I know people don’t want to jump to conclusions and say stuff, but the reality is you hear the talk about individuals trying to get a better life and enter this country to get a better life, but the reality is they will stop at nothing, including killing a federal agent — including taking someone’s life, which is what happened.”

Trump and other Republican officials, including Rep. Martha McSally of Tucson, quickly echoed the union’s early conclusion, and Trump turned it into an argument for his signature border wall.

Trump tweeted: “Border Patrol Officer killed at Southern Border, another badly hurt. We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will, and must, build the Wall!”

Then the story became more complicated. The FBI described the incident as a “potential assault” and in recent days obtained a search warrant targeting two brothers who may have been involved. But the local sheriff and other investigators said evidence suggested the incident could have been an accident, perhaps one in which a tractor-trailer sideswiped the agents.

Before investigators had determined what really happened, the agents’ union and their political allies knew what they wanted to be the case. They wanted it to be a murder.

Agents’ claims refuted

Out in Three Points, the agents eventually decided they considered the Tadeo situation to be an assault. Agents took the whole party to the Border Patrol detention facility in Tucson.

When I asked Abran Tadeo about the experience, he started to talk but choked up.

“Oh man, it was rough. I’ve never been arrested before,” he said. “Everybody in the RV was put in a cell. My mom, 77 years old, my sister-in- law, my niece, my two brothers, and of course my sister and I.”

For a while, there was a chance to lie down on the mats provided, Tadeo said, but then more people were brought in overnight, and there was no room. Everyone had to stand up. Eventually, the agents completed their search of the RV after the alleged “hit” by the dog. They found nothing.

While Andrea and Abran Tadeo’s relatives were released after about seven hours in the detention center, the two of them remained until the next afternoon. The terms of their release were typical, but they did impinge on their lives: no alcohol, no guns, required counseling. Tadeo had to drink grape juice instead of wine for his own Communion.

As the case wore on, Tadeo said, he was a candidate for a $30,000-per-year side job with Veterans Affairs, where he was already doing part-time work as a chaplain. He lost that opportunity because of the pending criminal case, he said. The VA also ended his part-time job.

The case lasted 10 months. It endured until defense attorneys Catrillo, who represented Abran Tadeo, and Hugo Reyna, who represented Andrea Tadeo, obtained all the evidence in the case.

Then, on Oct. 16, Reyna and Catrillo each filed motions to dismiss the charges. Reyna’s conclusion: “The graphics and audio in the video are clear and intelligible, and the disclosed evidence unquestionably refutes the allegations made by the Border Patrol agents in this case.”

Catrillo asked that Abran Tadeo’s charges be dismissed because of “outrageous governmental conduct.”

The U.S Attorney’s Office did not fight the request and on Oct. 31 agreed the case should be dismissed, which U.S. District Judge Raner Collins did on Nov. 2.

“If Father Tadeo and his sister didn’t have the films they had, they would have been dead ducks,” Catrillo said.

Now they are preparing a legal claim and will likely file a lawsuit over the arrests. The public may end up paying for the agents’ zeal to show that in the hubbub of those few minutes at the checkpoint, assaults happened.

But the bigger question for the public is if the agents’ exaggerations in the Tadeo incident were an exception, or if the surging number of reported assaults on CBP officers stem from similar embellishments that paint a scary, politically useful picture of the borderlands.

Contact: or 807-7789. On Twitter:


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