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Tucson man gets 30 months for smuggling people in rented water truck near Sasabe

A Tucson-area man was sentenced to 30 months in prison last week after he pleaded guilty in federal court to transporting people illegally and placing their life in jeopardy during an incident last summer.

Sean Christopher Hale, 33, was sentenced in federal court in Tucson by U.S. District Judge Rosemary Marquez on Feb. 10, following a plea agreement made in September 2021. Hale said he attempted to smuggle 26 people into the U.S. after they crossed the border, packing them into a rented water truck near Sasabe, Ariz.  —a tiny town along the border about 60 miles southwest of Tucson. 

Dressed as a construction worker, and attempting trying to hide among the mass of contractor vehicles that were working along the border to finish construction of the border wall, Hale picked up the group of people near a ranch along the border and attempted to drive past Border Patrol agents in the area.

TucsonSentinel reported on the case in July 2021 after Hale was indicted.

Prosecutors charged Hale not only with illegally transporting people, but also with the transportation of illegal aliens for profit placing in jeopardy the life of any person. A material witness told prosecutors that he was "fearful" to be in the water tank because it was "hot and lacked oxygen."

On the morning of June 19, 2021, around 5:44 a.m., a surveillance team for U.S. Customs and Border Protection spotted a group of 30 people walking toward Mirador Ranch, about 3 miles west of Sasabe. One camera operator watched the group, and reported that a water truck drove toward the ranch. A second camera operator began watching the water truck, and saw people climbing into the truck, and the water tank. Agents responded, and were told at 5:50 a.m. that the same water truck was now traveling eastward on Mirado Road.

Border Patrol agents spotted the water truck, and they pulled over to the side of the road to "gain a better view of the driver" as the truck passed, according to court records. As the truck drove past the agents, they noted that the driver—Hale—was wearing a neon yellow shirt, a white hard hat and "did not make eye contact" with the agents.

The Border Patrol agents followed the truck, ran the license plate, and discovered that the vehicle was a rental. The agents activated their lights and siren, ordering the truck to pull over. The water truck came to a stop, and Hale bolted from the vehicle, jumping out of the driver's side door and running north.

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The agents searched the truck, and when they climbed onto the water tank, they were able to see several people "piled on top of each other inside." All told, 26 people were hidden in the truck, and they were already sweaty from the morning heat and some struggled to get out of the truck and "needed assistance," the agents said, according to court records.

Weather records show that by 6 a.m. the temperature in the area had already climbed to 78 degrees, and later hit 104 degrees.

Among them was Juan Jose Escobar-Rodas, a citizen of Guatemala, who admitted to being in the U.S. without authorization. Escobar-Rodas was deported from the U.S. in December 2014, and said that in June 2021, he paid $1,000 for a "mafia fee" and had agreed to pay another $10,000 once he was in the U.S.

In his testimony, Escobar-Rodas said around 6 a.m., he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with a guide and 25 other people, and that they walked for about 30 minutes until they reached a water tank, and waited to be picked up. Escobar-Rodas, highlighted as a material witness, told agents that the water truck arrived, and the guide told them to get into the water tank.

Escobar-Roda said he was "fearful" to get inside the tank because it was "hot and lacked oxygen," according to court records.

"This case is a stark reminder of how human smuggling organizations endanger and exploit noncitizens looking for a better life in America," said United States Attorney Gary Restaino, in a statement. "We must deter illegal transportation not only to vindicate our border laws, but also to protect the vulnerable among us, regardless of their immigration status."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection — Border Patrol's parent agency — said that border officials "encountered" more than 1.7 million people during the fiscal year of 2021, and that as many as 34 percent of those encounters involved people who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at least once before. In BP's Tucson Sector, encounters hit 191,232 encounters in 2021, a significant change from years earlier, but far below encounters recorded by the agency from 1995 to 2010.

The United States Border Patrol investigated the case, while the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson handled the prosecution.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Private contractors patrol the border wall east of Sasabe, Ariz. in Sept. 2020.