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9 No More Deaths volunteers face charges for leaving water, supplies on wildlife refuge

Nine members of No More Deaths face federal misdemeanor charges for entering a wildlife refuge in Southern Arizona and leaving food and water in the remote desert.

The charges stem from three separate incidents last summer, in which volunteers with the humanitarian group drove into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refugee, about 125 miles west of Tucson, in an effort to help save people illegally crossing the rugged terrain of Arizona's southwestern desert.

This included four volunteers who were cited after they told federal officials that they were searching for three people lost in the wilderness, as well as five others, who were charged for entering the wildlife refugee without proper permits, driving a vehicle in the wilderness, and abandonment of property for leaving food, water and toiletry items in the desert.

Related: No More Deaths volunteer arrested, charged with harboring immigrants

Each volunteer faces up to 6 months in prison and nearly $400 in fines and court fees.

In addition to a misdemeanor for alleged activities on the wildlife refuge, NMD volunteer Scott Warren also faces a felony charge after he was arrested by Border Patrol agents just hours after the Tucson activist group released videos last week showing agents destroying water and food left for those crossing Arizona's deserts.

On Tuesday, eight of the accused volunteers made their initial appearances, though several, including Warren, were allowed to appear before U.S. Judge Leslie Bowman by telephone.

While federal marshals began serving court summons last month, volunteers and supporters of No More Deaths sought a link between the government's pursuit of the trespassing and littering charges to the release last week of a report that accused Border Patrol of "interfering" with humanitarian efforts, vandalizing hundreds of water bottles left for border crossers.

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In the report, No More Deaths said that from 2012 to 2015, 415 caches of water left for crossers in the 800-square-mile corridor near Arivaca were vandalized, spilling nearly 3,600 gallons of water into the desert. Using statistical analysis, including land-use patterns, as well as video from trail cameras, and personal experiences to support their claims, the group said that U.S. Border Patrol agents "are responsible for the widespread interference with essential humanitarian efforts."

No More Deaths has videos of Border Patrol agents intentionally destroying water bottles, including a video in which a female Border Patrol agent systematically kicks a half-dozen water bottles, spilling their contents, and a 2017 video in which an agent punctures a water bottle with a knife.

"Cabeza Prieta is an important area because it's where many people are crossing to come into the United States," said Alicia Dinsmore, a No More Deaths volunteer. "Just in 2017 alone 32 sets of human remains were found there, so No More Deaths group has made it a priority to provide humanitarian aid in the wilderness area."

She said that in the last year, federal officials had changed the language of permits, to "target humanitarian aid, by saying explicitly in permits" not to leave canned food, water and blankets in the wilderness area.

TucsonSentinel.com sent a request to federal officials for copies of the permits, but calls and emails have not been returned.

Disnmore said that No More Deaths volunteers have been putting food and water in the refugee for the last three years, and that federal officials have been "banning" individuals known for doing humanitarian aid on the refugee.

"There's only one publicly accessible road there, and that's the Devil's Highway, but all the other roads require a special permit," Dinsmore said. Federal officials have "blanket refused" to permits to No More Deaths to use those other roads, despite giving special permits to hunters, archaeologists. The reason is for environmental reasons, Dinsmore said, but that was "really interesting" considering that Border Patrol's own presence on the refugee comes with environmental costs.

"We have been talking to land managers about these issues for years," Dinsmore said, noting that Cabeza Prieta is adjacent to the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, but that only recently has there been an "amplification of interference with humanitarian aid, especially since the Trump administration has come into office."

Dinsmore noted the arrest of Warren, along with a raid on the No More Deaths camp south of Arivaca last June, when Border Patrol agents demanded entry into the camp to arrest four men, who were seeking medical aid.

"These are all ways that Border Patrol and others are interfering with our efforts in the field," Dinsmore said.

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Lee Sandusky, a volunteer with No More Deaths' documentation team and a desert aid worker, stressed that Warren's arrest and that of the other seven individuals are "completely separate instances."

When asked to comment, Warren — who teaches environmental studies classes online at Arizona State University —responded Wednesday via email, writing, "At the time being, I am directing all media inquiries to the No More Deaths media team."

A college spokesperson said Warren "was not acting in his capacity as an ASU employee at the time of the alleged incident, and we have no reason to believe it will impact his ability to fulfill his current duty with the university."

Along with Bill Warren, defense attorney Margo Cowan represented the volunteers in court Tuesday.

"For the last six or seven years, we collected video of Border Patrol dumping bottles, kicking bottles, and we released that and within hours they go to this old horse barn in Ajo — where all sorts of humanitarian aid groups work out of — and they go in and take one of our volunteers and charge him with a felony," Cowan said.

Among the nine who stand accused is Scott Warren, who was accused of harboring illegal immigrants after he met two men at a horse barn and gave them food, water and clean clothes.

Until recently No More Deaths hasn't had the capacity to conduct humanitarian efforts in the west desert, but now "volunteers don't go out and not find remains," Cowan said. 

"It's horrific, every single time somebody goes, they find remains, and sometimes they find multiple remains," Cowan said. "So, we're like non-combatants in this war where migrant crossing this terrible stretch of desert and they're lost." She noted that the western desert, including the Cabeza Prieta refugee contains a vast wilderness, with few ranches or places of respite from the environment.

"It's raw desert," Cowan said. "There's absolutely nothing out there."

"So this idea that our volunteers should be criminalized for trying to put out water and look for people, it's just off the charts," Cowan said.

The Tucson Border Patrol referred queries regarding the arrests to the U.S. Department of Justice, which declined to respond because the matter is ongoing.

Stephanie Dixon, an agent and spokeswoman with Tucson Border Patrol, said the agency also does what it can to help save lives.

"All of us have the same idea that we don't want anybody to die or get hurt in the desert. We understand the extreme elements that are out there," she said. "These agents are out hiking on a daily basis and we succumb to the elements all the time, so we know the necessity for water,"

Warren was cited for entering the Cabeza Prieta wilderness on June 1 after being observed by a federal wildlife officer, identified in court records only as FWO Valenzuela. According to an affidavit by Michael West, an officer with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Cabeza Prieta refuge, Valenzuela spotted two vehicles at the "top of Charlie Bell Pass" and he investigated, heading to a windmill in the desert, where he found one gallon jugs of water and green crates containing food and toiletry items. He continued to follow tire tracks until he found a white Dodge pickup about two miles past the wilderness entrance.

As West recorded GPS coordinates and took pictures of the vehicle, Warren along with three other people arrived, and Valenzuela took their identifications, reviewed their permits, and told Warren to "vacate the area the same route he entered the wilderness" before following Warren out of the wilderness area.

The next month, on July 19, Fish and Wildlife officer Valenzuela received a phone call from a Cabeza Prieta "law enforcement supervisor" to "respond and investigate trespass violations" near Charlie Bell. As Valenzuela headed to the area once again, according to West, he heard radio traffic from a Border Patrol agent that he was "following the group towards the refugee exit."

Valenzuela later the group in a white Dodge pickup and identified them as Caitlin Persis Deighan, Logan Thomas Hollarsmith, Zoe Anderson, and Rebecca Katie Grossman-Richeimer.

Valenzuela asked the group why they were at Charlie Bell Well, and was told that they were searching for three people who needed help. Deighan said that in "their urgency to get down there" and search for the three missing people, they see signs that the road to Charlie Bell Well was for government-use only.

As Valenzuela photographed their vehicle, an identified Border Patrol agent arrived and accused the volunteers of damaging a security camera nearby.

According to court records, following an interview with Pima County Sheriff's Deputies in Ajo, Richeimer was charged with criminal damage and malicious mischief.

A few weeks later on August 13, four more No More Deaths volunteers were charged with federal misdemeanors, including Natalie Renee Hoffman, Oona Meagan Holcomb, Madeline Abbe Huse, and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick.

According to court records, West received photographs that "clearly" showed a "non-government vehicle" in a designated wilderness area near Charlie Bell Pass.

West said in the affidavit that he investigated, driving to Charlie Bell in his own vehicle, and found a green F-150 truck along with a "large stash of green plastic crates" each containing one gallon plastic jugs of water, and "at least one crate" containing several cans of beans. He also said he spotted tire tracks leading further into the designated wilderness area, and he followed the tire tracks to find a white Dodge truck.

According to court records, West waited for nearly 40 minutes before the four women walked out of the desert and then asked for their IDs.

West also asked if they had permits, allowing them to enter the wilderness area. The four "admitted to intentionally not obtaining valid permits" because they "did not want to sign a piece of paper in which they knew they would not abide by because" they were leaving food and water in the desert, West said.

West said he "explained to them that they were not allowed to be on the refuge without a permit and were essentially trespassing."

He also asked if they had left the stash of water and food, and according to West, they said they left it there to "lighten the load on their truck while driving on rough roads."

West forced the group of volunteers to leave the refuge and when they attempted to collect the stash of water and food, he refused and instead collected the crates himself.

Cowan noted that in her own defense cases, she's represented men from Central American countries, including Honduras and El Salvador, who have been "held hostage" and forced at gunpoint to carry drugs across the border, often given only water to survive the hike. "They're about collapsing and then the Border Patrol finds them and they get charged and come to me as traffickers. This policy is off the charts."

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She said she wasn't surprised that the federal government was pursuing charges. "This is the age of Trump. This is the age of Jeff Sessions."

"The idea that humanitarians should be driven out of the desert so everybody dies so that's a deterrent. I think they'd be foolish to pursue them, we've won before, but I'm not bragging this is a different time, but we certainly won't agree that what they do is a criminal offense."

No More Deaths released evidence Border Patrol vandalizing humanitarian aid

Stretching for what seems like forever, the U.S.-Mexico border can be both beautiful and deadly.

"Most people out here aren't being shot or breaking a leg and not being able to walk," Sandusky said referring to undocumented migrants attempting to enter Arizona. "They run out of water and they can't continue."

No More Deaths recently released a three-year report with photo, video and interview evidence allegedly showing several Tucson Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs left along desert routes for crossing migrants.

The report details incidents that reportedly occurred between 2012 and 2015. During that time, No More Deaths said they distributed more than 31,558 one-gallon jugs of water across the mountainous terrain of southern Arizona.

During those three years, the report said, 86 percent of their plastic jugs were used for the purposes for which they were intended; however, the rest can't be accounted for because the jugs were vandalized.

"It is not our claim that the U.S. Border Patrol is exclusively responsible for the vandalism of water supplies," members of No More Deaths said. "We conclude that Border Patrol is responsible for the majority of the destroyed gallons we documented."

Christopher Sullivan, a Border Patrol agent and spokesman for the agency's Tucson Sector, said authorities do not tolerate this type of behavior.

"Tucson's sector does not condone or encourage the destruction or tampering with any water or food," he said. "If it does happen, we want to be made aware of it so therefore we can take the corrective actions against the agents that conduct those activities," he said.

Sullivan stressed that it would be easier for Border Patrol to punish agents vandalizing humanitarian aid if this information had been brought to them sooner.

"We don't want a few agents to tarnish what you know most agents do," Sullivan said. "The few agents that destroy or tamper with water like the aid, that is something that we don't support and we want to make that clear."

Wilderness hunters, drug and human traffickers as possible vandals

Before the report came out, Art Del Cueto, president of the Tucson sector for the National Border Patrol Union, said drug smugglers, their scouts and similar groups watch aid workers place supplies in the desert and then retrieve it.

No More Deaths reported an increase in destruction of water jugs during hunting season, but vandalization is consistent when hunting is not permitted.

Group volunteer Lee Sandusky has not seen a Border Patrol agent slash a water jug but has come across "horrible notes left on them" as well as jugs that have been shot.

"I am not sure why the guides or the coyotes would also destroy water they might need," Sandusky said.

Standing under a bent tree surrounded by boulders and thorn bushes that now protect five water jugs and four cans of SunVista pinto beans, Kate Morgan, abuse document coordinator for No More Deaths, recounted interactions she has had with crossing migrants.

"I have met people who have found our water drop sights and told us, 'We found it, but it was slashed, it was destroyed. We really needed it, we were really sad to see that,' " Morgan said.

"I have also met people who have said, 'I found your water drop sight. It has been days since I had food and water and it really made a difference to me.' "

No More Deaths alleges that certain laws, agencies and presidential administrations have turned this land into a "graveyard for the missing."

Its report says at least 6,915 bodies have been recovered in the U.S. borderlands from 1998 to 2016. Sandusky also said that within the three years documented in the No More Deaths report, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner received the remains of at least 593 border crossers. A majority of these individuals died from extreme weather conditions and dehydration.

No More Deaths said the high death toll is not coincidental but due to "Prevention Through Deterrence," a large scale border enforcement policy that began in 1994. "Prevention Through Deterrence" increased all aspects of surveillance, including the border wall, more armed agents, checkpoints and heightened surveillance technology.

The group alleges the program has put the lives of migrant crossers at risk and pushes them into regions where natural water sources are sparse.

Sullivan, the Border Patrol spokesman, said the agency's intention is not to harm anyone, but agents do have to uphold the law.

"The Border Patrol shares a common goal to preserve human life." Sullivan said. "We don't want anyone to die coming across the border. Every agent of the Tucson Border Patrol is trained to become first responders."

Regardless, groups like No More Deaths say the will continue their humanitarian work as long as people keep trying to cross.

"Like so many border crossers whose lives are lost in this no man's land between nation states, we know very little of these persons," Morgan said. "The details of their life, journey and death are not ours to tell. But still we hope to gather in their honor and demand and end that in no small part led to their deaths in this rugged and remote terrain."

Cronkite News reporter Leah Goldberg contributed to this story.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported an incorrect day for the court hearing; it was held Tuesday.


TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Volunteers with No More Deaths pass a cross for those who have died in the Arivaca corridor.