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As No More Deaths trial wraps up, aid group searches for missing man & finds remains in desert

As the trial of a No More Deaths volunteer drew to a close Wednesday, members of the organization continued to search for a man missing since last week in the remote Cabeza Prieta refuge, and discovered four sets of human remains. 

Scott Daniel Warren, 36, is the last of nine volunteers with the Tucson-based humanitarian aid group facing misdemeanor charges for leaving water, food, clothing, and medicine in the desert in the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, near Ajo, a small Arizona town west of Tucson.

Other volunteers for the group said they have just discovered the remains of several people who died in the remote desert, as they searched for a man described as vomiting blood and severely blistered who was left behind by a group of migrants. No More Deaths activists said that Border Patrol had not responded to their requests for assistance in finding the man.

In Warren's trial on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins gave lawyers until May 24 to submit their final arguments after testimony concluded on the trial's third day. 

Warren faces two misdemeanor charges stemming from an incident in June 2017, when he and a dozen other people entered the refuge to leave humanitarian supplies. Warren was charged with operating a motor vehicle in a wilderness area because he drove a white Dodge Ram pickup along an administrative road closed to the public, and for abandonment of property because he and the other members of his group left one-gallon plastic water bottles, cans of beans, blankets, and other supplies near Charlie Bell Well, a remote water station established by ranchers that is now resupplied periodically for animals.

He also faces felony charges for harboring after he was arrested on Jan. 17, 2018, at the "Barn," a privately owned building in Ajo, regularly used as a staging point for volunteers. That trial will likely begin 29. 

As lawyers made their arguments about Warren's fate Wednesday, No More Deaths volunteers said they launched a search and rescue mission outside of Ajo, and recovered four sets of human remains as they searched for a missing man in the western desert of Arizona.

All four sets of remains were recovered in the Growler Valley, the same remote and lonely stretch where Warren was cited for driving a vehicle and leaving water, food and other supplies. 

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Tamar Smith said that No More Deaths deployed a team of 16 people and began searching for a man,who was left in the desert last Thursday by the group he was traveling with. However, the team is limited by the rugged terrain and the inherent difficulties of searching on foot in Cabeza Prieta. 

The group identified the missing man to TucsonSentinel.com, but asked that his name and nationality be withheld per a request from his family, and that he be identified as “Henry.”

“We just don’t have the physical ability to do the extremely hard hike to get out there in the heat of the day, and climb along a very tall, rugged mountain range,” Smith said.

“Because we can’t drive, we have to walk several miles down into the valley before we can even begin our search at all.” Smith said that No More Deaths volunteers can only actively search around four miles in a “geographically vast area,” and that the group was working on establishing a base camp in the refuge to try and cover more ground. 

Smith said that while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has officers out there who are allowed to regularly drive their patrol vehicles on administrative roads, the agency has largely refused to help No More Deaths search for the missing man, who was last seen vomiting blood and suffering from severe blisters on his feet. 

Smith said that she spoke with an officer with FWS and “asked for permission to drive on the road.” 

She said that Border Patrol had confirmed that Henry was not in their custody via a consulate office, but family members told No More Deaths while they had urged Border Patrol to "initiate a rescue operation" and "CBP refused to mobilize resources." 

“We explained how urgent it was, where we had searched and the limitations, and we asked to drive on that road,” but the officer refused, and also rejected a request to travel in a FWS vehicle. Smith said she asked how they could best work together and partner, but “they refused.” 

TucsonSentinel.com requested comment from officials with the Interior Department, and from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but did not receive a response from either federal agency.

Warren, others charged with driving in wildlife refuge

In recent years, No More Deaths has expanded its operations in the Ajo area, and that has resulted in increasing friction between the volunteers and federal officials. Over the summer of 2017, along with Warren, eight other volunteers were cited with federal misdemeanors for entering Cabeza Prieta without permits, driving vehicles along administrative roads, and for leaving food, water and other supplies. 

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In January, four volunteers cited for a separate incident in Cabeza Prieta in August that same year, were convicted of entering the refuge without a permit and abandoning property for leaving behind caches of water. One volunteer was also convicted of operating a motor vehicle in a wilderness area, when she drove a No More Deaths truck along that same road. In March, they were sentenced to unsupervised probation and a fine of $250.

A month later four other volunteers pleaded guilty to a civil infraction of entering the wildlife refuge without a permit, and agreed to a fine of $280. The group argued that they entered the refuge in search of three people reporting missing that week.

On Monday, Warren testified that his actions that day were part of a sincerely held religious belief that all life is sacred, and that he was “compelled” to provide aid to migrants, as well as search for their remains, as a volunteer with several aid organizations, including No More Deaths, which operates as a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.

Warren said his “motivation to act” comes from “a deep sense, and relationship” to the desert that surrounds Ajo and that because dozens of people have suffered and died in that desert, their spirts “continue to dwell in that place.”

NMD says rescue beacons not enough

During Warren’s trial, federal prosecutors repeatedly talked about the presence of 10 rescue beacons on Cabeza Prieta deployed by U.S. Border Patrol, but Smith said that the four sets of remains found this week were “all found less than four miles of the rescue beacon, some less than two miles.” 

One beacon lies at the top of Charlie Bell Pass, the last publicly accessible road before it goes into the wilderness and continues through the pass to Charlie Bell Well. 

Along with the beacons, refuge managers have allowed Humane Borders to deploy water barrels just outside of the wilderness, and officials have raised blue flags where there are naturally formed water tanks that are periodically refilled by trucks. 

“I’ve been 200 feet away from the beacon and not seen it. It’s not in the valley proper, it’s in almost a crevice, obscured by mountains in either direction," she said. "If you’re not at the perfect elevation, and at the perfect spot, you will not find this beacon."

She also said that Henry and his group walked past one rescue beacon, and for whatever reason, despite his condition, they chose not to use the beacon.

Overall the Ajo Station monitors and respond to 20 beacons, including 10 in Cabeza Prieta, and eight either in or near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Last year, the agency said that the Tucson Sector had 93 beacon activations, resulting in 158 people being rescued.

Smith said that the comparison between missing persons cases outside of the borderlands, and missing persons cases in places like Cabeza Prieta are “like night and day.” 

She said that No More Deaths would continue to search for Henry. 

“Where we live, that’s something that No More Deaths, we don’t take lightly, we keep working on every option possible, and in this case, when there’s a family member, we keep them informed and respect their wishes,”  Smith said.

“In the Growler Mountains, there’s an extremely high number of human remains found there. This is a critical area to search and rescue, and search and recovery work,” Smith said. “To criminalize humanitarian aid in the midst of this is devastating.”

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A blue flag marking a water drop in the Cabeza Prieta wilderness in August 2018.

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