A Mexican national charged in the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent during a December 2010 gunfight along the Arizona-Mexico border pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in Tucson.
Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, who previously had pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and assault on a federal officer following his Dec. 15, 2010, arrest in the shooting death of Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry, changed the plea to guilty to first-degree murder.
Prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty, but Osorio-Arellanes faces up to life in prison when sentenced on Jan. 11 by U.S. District Judge David Bury.
Two WASR-10/63 semi-automatic assault rifles — a Romanian AK-47 variant — found at the site of the killing were traced to the botched Fast and Furious gunrunning investigation.
Osorio-Arellanes was shot during the gunfight and has been in custody since the night of the shooting. His was the first conviction in the nearly two-year-old case.
While federal prosecutors have not said who actually fired the fatal shot, records show that five illegal immigrants armed with at least two semi-automatic assault rifles were hunting for Border Patrol agents near a desert watering hole known as Mesquite Seep just north of the Arizona-Mexico border when a gunfight erupted and Terry was fatally wounded. A sealed federal grand jury indictment said the Mexican nationals were "patrolling" the rugged desert area of Peck Canyon at about 11:15 p.m. on Dec. 14, 2010, with the intent to "intentionally and forcibly assault" Border Patrol agents.
At least two of the Mexicans carried their assault rifles "at the ready position," one of several details about the attack showing that Mexican smugglers are becoming more aggressive on the U.S. side of the border.
According to the indictment, the Mexicans were "patrolling the area in single-file formation" a dozen miles northwest of the border town of Nogales and opened fire on four Border Patrol agents after the agents identified themselves in Spanish as police officers.
Using thermal binoculars, one of the agents determined that at least two of the Mexicans were carrying rifles, but according to an affidavit in the case by FBI agent Scott Hunter, when the Mexicans did not drop their weapons as ordered, two agents used their shotguns to fire "less than lethal" beanbags at them. At least one of the Mexicans opened fire and, according to the affidavit, Terry, a 40-year-old former Marine, was shot in the back.
A Border Patrol shooting-incident report said that Terry called out, "I'm hit," and then fell to the ground, a bullet having pierced his aorta. "I can't feel my legs," Terry told one of the agents who cradled him. "I think I'm paralyzed." Bleeding profusely, he died at the scene.
After the initial shots, two agents returned fire, hitting Osorio-Arellanes in the abdomen and leg. The others fled. The FBI affidavit said Osorio-Arellanes admitted during an interview that all five Mexicans were armed.
Osorio-Arellanes, 33, initially was charged with illegal entry, but that case was dismissed when the indictment was handed up. It named Osorio-Arellanes on a charge of second-degree murder, but did not identify him as the likely shooter, saying only that Osorio-Arellanes and others whose names were blacked out "did unlawfully kill with malice aforethought United States Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry while Agent Terry was engaged in ... his official duties."
The indictment also noted that Osorio-Arellanes had been convicted in Phoenix in 2006 of felony aggravated assault, had been detained twice in 2010 as an illegal immigrant, and had been returned to Mexico repeatedly.
The indictment lists the names of other suspects in the shooting, but they are redacted.
In the Terry killing, the two assault rifles found at the scene were identified as having been purchased in a Glendale, Ariz., gun shop as part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' (ATF) failed Fast and Furious investigation.
More than 250 incursions by Mexican military personnel into the United States have been documented in the past several years.
The Border Patrol has warned agents in Arizona that many of the intruders were "trained to escape, evade and counter-ambush" if detected. The agency cautioned agents to keep "a low profile," to use "cover and concealment" in approaching the Mexican units, to employ "shadows and camouflage" to conceal themselves and to "stay as quiet as possible."
Several of the incursions occurred in the same area where Terry was killed, including a 2005 incident in which two agents were wounded by assailants dressed in black commando-type clothing in what law-enforcement authorities said was a planned ambush. More than 50 rounds were fired at the agents after they spotted the suspected gunmen.
Many of the Mexican drug cartels use former Mexican soldiers, police and federal agents to protect drug loads headed into the U.S. Many cartel leaders also have targeted U.S. Border Patrol agents and state and local police, sometimes offering bounties of up to $50,000.
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