Friday, February 2, 2007

A Texas deputy sheriff who fired shots at a fleeing vehicle after the driver tried to run him down faces 10 years in prison for injuring one of the passengers, a Mexican national being smuggled illegally into the United States.

The U.S. attorney, who won lengthy prison terms last year for two U.S. Border Patrol agents in the shooting of a drug-smuggling suspect, also prosecuted Edwards County Deputy Sheriff Guillermo F. Hernandez, who is to be sentenced next month.

The deputy’s boss, Sheriff Donald G. Letsinger, said his officer — who had been on the job for a year — “followed the letter of the law” in defending himself in the April 2005 incident and questioned why the government brought charges.

“This is a fine young man, and I just don’t believe he committed the wrong of which he was accused,” Sheriff Letsinger said. “I have never had anything hurt me so badly as this prosecution. We’ve got to make this right.”

Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, called the prosecution and conviction of Hernandez, known to his friends as “Gilmer,” “another example of how the federal government is more concerned about people [who are] illegally invading America than it is about the men who protect America.”

“Once again, our government is on the wrong side of the border war,” Mr. Poe said.

The deputy’s Dec. 1 conviction has enraged his hometown of Rocksprings, Texas, population 1,250, where “Free Gilmer” signs have been posted. The Baptist church is paying the deputy’s mortgage and others have come up with costs for the family’s truck, propane and water bills.

Hernandez, 25, and his wife, Ashley, have a 4-month-old daughter.

“The town is outraged that this has happened to our deputy,” said the Rev. Albert Green, pastor at the First Baptist Church. “Those people were in this country illegally, and they tried to run him down. They were the criminals, but the prosecutors made our deputy out to be the criminal.

“I do not know a single person who doesn’t feel Gilmer was prosecuted for doing his job,” said Mr. Green, who is the deputy’s pastor. “I do not know a finer, more well-behaved gentleman. He would not purposely or willfully hurt anyone.”

U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, appointed in October 2001 by President Bush, said Hernandez fired shots at the vehicle as it sped away “knowing it was occupied with the nine individuals,” at least seven of whom were illegal aliens — some of whom later were called to testify for the government.

Hernandez was convicted after a jury trial in U.S. District Court in Del Rio, Texas, 75 miles southwest of Rocksprings — found guilty of violating “under the color of law” the civil rights of Maricela Rodriguez-Garcia, a Mexican national.

The woman was struck in the lip by bullet or other metal fragments after an 11:50 p.m. traffic stop in Rocksprings in April 2005. Reports said Hernandez fired shots at the blue Chevrolet Suburban’s rear tires as it sped off after being stopped for running a red light.

Acquitted on a second count regarding injury to another passenger, he will be sentenced March 12 at the Del Rio court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Baumann, who prosecuted the case, told reporters that the law does not give law-enforcement officers the right to use “deadly force to stop a car unless it poses an imminent threat to the officer or another person. If the car is going away from you, it’s not even a close call.”

Mr. Sutton’s office convicted Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos, 37, and Jose Alonso Compean, 28, on charges of causing serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon, discharge of a firearm in a crime of violence and a civil rights violation. They were sentenced to 11 and 12 years, respectively.

Shana Jones, spokeswoman for Mr. Sutton, did not return calls for comment yesterday.

Sheriff Letsinger said an investigation found that Hernandez approached the vehicle and found only the driver was sitting upright and suspected the others were illegal aliens. He said the driver, after being asked to step out of the vehicle, pulled forward and turned into Hernandez — fleeing from what the sheriff described as the deputy’s “legal stop.”

Thinking the driver had tried to run him over, he said Hernandez fired at the vehicle’s rear tires. He said at least one of the people inside the vehicle confirmed that the driver had turned it into the deputy.

Sheriff Letsinger, with three deputies to handle all law-enforcement matters in a 2,000-square-mile county, called the Texas Rangers after the incident to investigate what happened. He said he also called the Mexican Consulate because Mexican nationals were involved, and the consulate later notified the FBI.

The Rangers’ incident report, the sheriff said, noted that after firing shots, Hernandez returned to his patrol car, notified dispatch and pursued the vehicle until it crashed into a fence — at which time the occupants, except for Mrs. Rodriguez-Garcia, fled.

Mrs. Rodriguez-Garcia, Ivonne Hernandez Morales and Candido Garcia Perez, all occupants in the vehicle, told investigators that they paid $2,000 to be taken across the Rio Grande from Acuna, Mexico. They said they later met the vehicle’s driver and a guide, who were to take them to Austin and Dallas.

Sheriff Letsinger also said the Rangers and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents, using dogs and metal detectors, found four shell casings at the traffic stop site but none at the crash site — discounting claims by two of the vehicle’s occupants that Hernandez fired shots at them as they fled the vehicle.

The Texas Rangers did not respond to calls yesterday.

Noting that prosecutors offered the deputy probation in exchange for a guilty plea, the sheriff said, “This young man didn’t do anything wrong and wasn’t about to say he had. I think that speaks to his character.”

In the Border Patrol case, Ramos and Compean testified that they shot Osbaldo Aldrete-Davila in the buttocks only after he assaulted Compean and pointed a weapon at both of them. Prosecutors and later a federal jury in El Paso disagreed. Aldrete-Davila abandoned 743 pounds of marijuana before fleeing back into Mexico.

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