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No More Deaths volunteers fined $250, sentenced to 15 mos. probation

A federal judge sentenced four No More Deaths volunteers to 15 months unsupervised probation and fined each $250 on Friday, stemming from their convictions last month of violating federal law when they left water and food for migrants crossing Southern Arizona's protected Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. 

The judge also banned the volunteers — Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick — from entering the wilderness area. 

On Jan. 18, U.S. District Court Judge Bernardo Velasco found them guilty of federal misdemeanors after they were cited by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services officers during an incident in the summer of 2017. 

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

The volunteers drove a Dodge truck down a poorly maintained road in the wilderness area in August 2017, and left one-gallon bottles of water in milk crates, along with other supplies, in an attempt to stave off the deaths of people who attempt to cross Cabeza Prieta, where hundreds of bodies have been found over the years across the rugged and remote terrain.

A FWS officer was notified that the volunteers for the humanitarian aide group were within the refuge and went to investigate, and after interviewing the women, he escorted them out of the area and collected the supplies they left.

Following a short sentencing hearing Friday, Velasco said that he while he didn’t have “any doubt” in his mind that the women wouldn’t violate federal law again, he felt it was necessary to tell No More Deaths that they should be “aware that their conduct may be against the law.”

Federal prosecutors asked during the hearing for a $1,500 fine for Hoffman, and $1,000 fines for the others, and 12 months of supervised probation. 

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During the hearing, prosecutor Anna Wright said that the four women had committed multiple violations of federal law, and that their testimony during the trial was “difficult to believe on several points.” 

“They each did this intentionally,” Wright said. She also bristled at the idea, presented during trial, that No More Deaths had an “agreement” with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. 

“Frankly, that’s just not true,” Wright said. “There are no agreements now.” 

As Velasco listened impassively, the volunteer’s attorney, Chris Dupont, said that the four volunteers were “credible” and “strong” women who went out to help people. He also reminded Velasco that only days earlier, a man had died near a No More Deaths truck while volunteers were out searching and dropping water — his death the result of exposure and dehydration. 

Dupont argued that the four volunteers violated federal law not out of “greedy motive” and asked Velasco to weigh the necessity of deterrence and the government’s actions against their entry into the refuge.

“Their motives were pure,” Dupont said. “And, for that they’ll face lifelong consequences.” 

After Dupont spoke, Velasco asked the women to stand, and said that they needed to know that their conduct was illegal, and while they were engaged in humanitarian aid, on the “other side of that coin” they were abandoning property in the refuge. And, he said that they and the organizers of No More Deaths should know that federal prosecutors think that their actions are against the law.

During the hearing, the judge also quickly dismissed a motion for a new trial filed by defense attorneys, who alleged that federal prosecutors did not disclose documents as required under the law.

Velasco’s decision Friday mirrors an agreement made by federal prosecutors last week that dismissed the charges against four other volunteers with the group, who entered Cabeza Prieta that same summer in an attempt to search for men who had gone missing in the area. 

While Hoffman and the others face sentencing, last week federal prosecutors decided to drop the charges against four other volunteers — Caitlin Persis Deighan, Zoe E. Anderson, Logan Thomas Hollarsmith, and Rebecca Katie Grossman-Richeimer — who faced their own prosecutions for entering Cabeza Prieta without a permit, and for operating a motor vehicle there in June 2017. 

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On Feb. 22, prosecutors announced in a short three-minute hearing, backed by 100-word court document, that the government had agreed to settle the matter, and issue civil infractions carrying fines of $250 for each. 

This leaves one more No More Deaths case on the docket here as federal prosecutors continue to press a case against a ninth member of the group. Scott Warren was arrested by Border Patrol agents on Jan. 17, 2018, at the "Barn," a privately owned building in Ajo, regularly used as a staging point for volunteers who want to offer humanitarian aid in the harsh deserts surrounding the small town west of Tucson. 

Warren faces two counts of harboring illegal aliens and one count of conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal aliens. If convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms, Warren could face more than two decades behind bars. In the indictment, federal officials said that Warren "did knowingly and intentionally combine, conspire, confederate, and agree with various other persons" unknown to the grand jury to transport and move two men, identified as Kristian Perez-Villanueva and Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday. Warren was also charged with attempting to "conceal, harbor and shield" the men to avoid detection by immigration officials.

While federal officials once attempted to prosecute a No More Deaths member in 2008 for littering in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, another federal refuge managed by FWS — a conviction that was overturned two years later by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — up until recently, there has been a long standing détente between humanitarian groups and federal wildlife officers. 

However, in 2016 federal officials increasingly began to interfere with the work of No More Deaths. In December 2016, security guards banned volunteers from the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range and the adjacent Cabeza Prieta refuge. Then, during the summer of 2017, Border Patrol agents raided the permanent No More Deaths camp near Arivaca, southwest of Tucson, after setting up a temporary checkpoint nearby and conducting surveillance on the camp.

Then, in July 2017, FWS cited Deighan's group for entering Cabeza Prieta, and in August of that year, Hoffman's group was cited and the food and water they hoped to leave was collected by FWS officers, and they were later cited. Then, in January 2018 just following the release of a NMD report that argued Border Patrol agents "are responsible for the widespread interference of essential humanitarian efforts" in the 800-square-mile corridor near Arivaca, Warren was arrested at the barn.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Fish and Wildlife Services officer confronts volunteers with No More Deaths near Charlie Bell Pass, an area on the Cabeza Prieta wildlife refuge, west of Ajo, Ariz., on Aug. 3, 2018.

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