Two members of a “rip crew” that engaged in a fatal firefight with U.S. Border Patrol Agents near the Mexican border in December 2010 were found guilty of murder today by a U.S. District Court jury in Tucson.
Agent Brian Terry was killed in the fight, and guns found at the scene were traced to the scandalously flawed federal gun-running sting operation called “Fast and Furious.”
Jurors convicted Ivan Soto-Barraza and Jesus Leonel Sanchez-Meza, who were extradited from Mexico to stand trial for Terry’s death, on all counts: first-degree murder — though neither is believed to have fired the fatal bullet — second-degree murder, conspiracy, attempted robbery, carrying a firearm in a violent crime, and four counts of assaulting a federal officer.
The case stems from the shootout December 2010. Terry and three other agents were staked out above an arroyo southwest of Rio Rico, 11 miles north of the Mexican border.
Soto-Barraza and Sanchez-Meza were part of a five-man rip crew looking for drug smugglers to rob. Both admitted they had entered the country illegally from Mexico and were carrying semi-automatic rifles as they patrolled the area. The Border Patrol agents shouted “Policia,” and began firing non-lethal bean-bag rounds, drawing fire from unknown members of the rip crew.
Terry took a bullet in the back and quickly bled to death. One of the rip-crew members was also wounded and the others fled.
The wounded rip-crew member pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison; an organizer of the crew who was not present at the firefight also pleaded guilty and is expected to be sentenced to 30 years as well. Two members of the crew are still at large. Soto-Barraza and Sanchez-Meza were extradited from Mexico; they face mandatory natural life sentences.
The prosecution based its first-degree murder charges on the theory of felony murder, meaning that someone died during the commission of a felony, in this case, attempted robbery. The defense admitted that the two men were guilty of conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery — the “commerce,” in this case, being drug trafficking. But they argued that the crew members could not have committed attempted robbery because there were no potential robbery targets anywhere in the vicinity when the shooting started.
Both men denied they fired their weapons, but pinpointing who the shooter was is irrelevant in felony murder.
The defense also claimed self-defense in the second-degree murder and assault charges, saying that the crew members believed they were under attack and some of them returned fired because they were not aware that the shooters were law-enforcement officers.
The jury sided with the prosecution and found Soto-Barraza and Sanchez-Meza guilty on all counts.
Prosecutors also convinced the judge to forbid any mention during the trial of Fast and Furious, the embarrassing Arizona-based federal operation that allowed criminals to purchase more than 1,000 weapons with the hope of tracking them to cartel leaders. To avoid appearance of conflict of interest, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Arizona recused itself from the case, and it was assigned to prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego.