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4 No More Deaths volunteers on trial for leaving water, food in wildlife refuge

The trial of four No More Deaths volunteers facing federal misdemeanor charges this week may have serious implications for the future of humanitarian aid for people crossing through Southern Arizona's deserts. 

During opening arguments Tuesday, prosecutors briefly made their case that the volunteers violated federal laws by driving into the wildlife refuge, leaving items behind, and entering without a permit.

Lawyers for the four volunteers said that as members of the Tucson-based organization No More Deaths they were working to stop people from dying as they crossing the U.S.-Mexico border through the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a remote 800,000-acre wilderness area.

Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick each face charges stemming from an incident on Aug. 13, 2017, when they were stopped by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer on an administrative road maintained in the wilderness that heads toward Charlie Bell Well about 18 miles west of Ajo, Ariz. 

Using a Dodge Ram pickup, the four women drove out to the pass to drop off milk crates containing one-gallon jugs of water, along with cans of beans. However, after they were met by FWS Officer Michael West, they headed back to Ajo under his direction, and as they headed back, he collected the supplies they left. 

Hoffman was charged with operating a motor vehicle in a wilderness area, and entering a national refuge without a permit, while Holcomb, Huse, and Orozco-McCormick were charged with entering without a permit and abandonment of property, each a class "B" misdemeanor. 

The charges highlight an increasing clash between humanitarian volunteers and federal officials, as five other volunteers face their own charges under similar circumstances, and Scott Warren, a No More Deaths volunteer in Ajo, now faces a harboring charge after Border Patrol agents raided "the Barn," a small house used as a staging ground for volunteers in the area. 

No More Deaths volunteers have charged that the arrest of Warren was done in retaliation as it followed the release of video and a report that argues Border Patrol agents may be intentionally destroying humanitarian supplies. 

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As part of his opening arguments, a lawyer for the volunteers Chris Dupont called that the deaths of people in the refuge a "long-running public health crisis," and said that the Growler Valley — a harsh desert valley hemmed in by rugged mountains — was a "veritable cemetery, a land of unmarked graves." 

Dupont said that the volunteers were acting in their faith, against a "political system that is broken" and were saving people "without bending a single blade of grass." 

He noted a database operated as a joint collaboration between Humane Borders, its own humanitarian organization, and Pima County's Office of the Medical Examiner, shows that in the Cabeza Prieta corridor alone, 137 human remains have been found from 2001 to 2018, including 32 in 2017 alone. 

In Arizona, more than 3,000 bodies have been recovered in the wilderness of Southern Arizona since 2001 and most remain unidentified despite a growing body of work by humanitarian organizations. 

Dupont also argued that the aid volunteers would not have known that criminal charges were possible, because while the use of drones in the refuge is carved out for having a criminal penalty in the permit application, the rest of the agreement states that civil penalties and "disbarment" from the range are likely penalties. 

He also noted that in June 2017, the land manager of Cabeza Prieta released a new "hold harmless agreement" that included a new section that people agree they will not "abandon personal property or possessions" in the refuge, including "water bottles, water containers, food, food items, food containers blankets, clothing, footwear, medical supplies." Because of this new requirement, the volunteers said they didn't want to file a permit since they were determined to leave water bottles and cans of food at Charlie Bell Well, West said. 

According to Dupont, a federal prosecutor told volunteers in 2017 that the U.S. Attorney's Office wasn't interested in prosecuting offenses related to humanitarian aid. 

West testified that the volunteers asked to leave the water, and that he replied "no" before he collected 16 crates and loaded them into his own truck.

As Dupont pressed, West said that he was unaware of the maps created by Humane Borders that show deaths in the range, but that he had run into remains as a wildlife officer. He also could not remember an incident that happened that July, when two men were rescued, and a third man was left behind after they ran into trouble in the desert's brutal summer heat. 

As Dupont cross-examined West, federal prosecutor Anna Wright repeatedly objected to the "relevance" of his questions, as U.S. District Judge Bernardo Velasco, who will decide the issue alone as part of a bench trial, rubbed his head and at one point audibly sighed before making a decision. 

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West was followed by Brian Krukoski, a senior officer at USFWS, who said that the refuge exists to keep the land "pristine" but while under cross-examination by Dupont, admitted that other agencies, including U.S. Border Patrol regularly drive along roads inside the refuge. However, he was not aware of a study that Louis Fidel, another lawyer representing the group, tried to present that showed the refuge was marked by dozens roads. 

Fidel pressed by Velasco interrupted him and asked if the lawyer was trying to argue, "If they can travel without a permit, why can't my clients?" 

After the two law enforcement officers, the prosecution rested its case, setting up an attempt by Anne Chapman to have the entire case thrown out, or at least the charge of abandoning personal property. However, Velasco rejected this motion. He also rejected a line of questioning to Dr. Greg Hess, the chief medical examiner in Pima County. "This trial is not about the government's obligations," he said. 

As the day came to a close, Dupont brought Rev. John Fife to the stand to testify about his own prosecution by federal officials in the 1980s when he led the sanctuary movement and the early days of No More Deaths. Fife said that "provision of humanitarian aid" is a mandate that is "profound," and that the ministry of the group, and its volunteers is guided by the Unitarian Universalist Church. 

 "The most desperate of us were dying out there," Fife said. 

The trial is scheduled to continue through Friday. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer Brian Krukoski walks toward a truck driven by No More Deaths volunteers at Charlie Bell Pass in Aug. 2018.

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