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'Rip crew' member sentenced to nearly 10 years for conspiracy & firearms offenses

'Rip crew' member sentenced to nearly 10 years for conspiracy & firearms offenses

One member of bandit crew was shot & killed during 2014 confrontation with Border Patrol agents

  • A Border Patrol agent near the scene of a deadly shooting connected to a 'rip crew' near southwest Tucson in 2014.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA Border Patrol agent near the scene of a deadly shooting connected to a 'rip crew' near southwest Tucson in 2014.

A Mexican man was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison earlier this month after he was found guilty of conspiracy and firearms offenses as part of three-man "rip crew" in 2014 by robbing marijuana smugglers in Southern Arizona's deserts. 

One member of the "rip crew" was shot and killed during a confrontation with U.S. Border Patrol agents in a neighborhood just southwest of Tucson.

Abelardo Rodriguez-Arvizu, 38, was sentenced on March 3 by U.S. District  Court Judge Jennifer G. Zipps to 117 months in prison after she found him guilty during a bench trial last August of three felonies, including conspiracy to commit robbery, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana, and possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking offense.

Rodriguez-Arivzu was part of a group of at least four men who worked to rob smugglers as they traveled through the Pascua Yaqui Indian Nation near Tucson.Rodriguez-Arivzu, along with Francisco Javier Caballero-Bustamante, Jose Carlos Lemus-Veliz, and Edgar Amaro  López, used an arsenal of weapons—including .40-caliber and 9mm pistols, as well an AK-47 variant, a SKS rifle, and a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun—to rob smugglers who were backpacking the marijuana from Mexico into the U.S., according to court documents.

On the morning of Oct. 24, 2014, U.S. Border Patrol Agents Henry Compton and Daniel Angulo found fresh shoe prints from a group of people in the desert near South Vahalla Road and West Zorro Road, about 10 miles southwest of Downtown Tucson.

The agents followed the prints, and found a man hiding in the brush. He fled, and the agents gave chase. As they chased the first men, they encountered a second man—later identified as López—dressed in body armor and carrying a firearm.

According to court documents, López drew on Compton, who responded by firing his weapon hitting López in the face and killing him. The Pima Medical Examiner's Office released López's identity a few weeks after the shooting, reported.

FBI agents found several weapons at the scene, including the rifles, shotgun and pistols, as well as knives, cellphones, backpacks, and carpet booties used by smugglers in an attempt to hide their tracks, according to court documents.

For the next five years, federal officials—including FBI Special Agent Michelle Terwilliger—ran down the members of the "rip crew" beginning just weeks after the shooting when officials received a tip about Rodriguez-Arvizu's girlfriend and his residence.

For months there was little movement in the case case until May 2015,when Caballero-Bustamante was arrested in Phoenix. FBI Special Agent Michelle Terwilliger connected him to López through DNA sampled while Caballero-Bustamante was held at the Border Patrol station in Casa Grande and a Tucson grand jury indicted Caballero-Bustamante on four counts in July 2015. The next year, Lemus-Feliz was also connected to the scene through DNA sampled from a plastic jug,  a camouflage mask, and a black and gray jacket.

In Aug. 2016, Terwilliger and FBI Special Agent Tony Taylor interviewed Conrado Navarro-Cateneda who told agents he dropped off part of the group the night before López was shot. Calling López "Calavera," or Skull, Navarro-Cateneda told the agents he was paid $100 to $200 to drop off four men in the area including Lemus-Veliz—known as "Grenas"—as well as another man, Juan Pedro and Caballero-Bustamante, who he called "Melvin."

A few weeks later, the FBI agents interviewed Karla Navarro who said she was dating Rodriguez-Arvizu in 2014. Navarro told the agents she picked up her boyfriend and López from his house the evening before the fatal shooting, and that both men were armed. She later dropped off López and Rodriguez-Arvizu near Valencia Road and Vahalla Road.

After López was killed, Rodriguez-Arvizu called Navarro and asked her to pick him up near houses on Valencia Road and Ajo Highway and later drop him off in South Tucson. "She did not see [Rodriguez-Arvizu] again until five to six days later," according to court documents.

With Rodriguez-Arvizu in the wind, federal officials pursued their case against Caballero-Bustamante and Lemus-Veliz and in Sept. 2017, the two were sentenced by Zipps to 98 months and 144 months, respectively, for their roles in the rip crew, said Yvette Cantu, a Justice Department spokeswoman.

Rodriguez-Arvizu managed to evade authorities until Nov. 18, 2019, when he was picked up by Border Patrol agents near Sasabe, Ariz.

Terwilliger and FBI Special Agent Oscar Ramirez picked up Rodriguez-Arvizu from the Tucson Sector's station, and drove him to the FBI Field Office. As they drove, Ramirez sat next to Rodriguez-Arvizu and during the car ride he made several statements, including telling Ramirez he "did not shoot Edgar and that Border Patrol did that."  

Rodriguez-Arvizu "asked if this had anything to do with Edgar and then quickly added that he did not shoot Edgar and that Border Patrol did that. The defendant then stated that he did not see anything and only heard the gunshots."

He also asked if "he was going to get eight years." 

During a 50-minute interview after he was read his Miranda rights, Rodriguez-Arvizu told the two FBI agents he was at the scene and left after López was shot. He also said he did not see the shooting because he was "using the bathroom when it happened," according to court records.

He also identified the other members of the group, including Caballero-Bustamante, Lemus-Veliz, and a fifth man he called "Chapito" or Shorty. Edgar López he said was carrying an AK-47 and "Melvin" or Caballero-Bustamante carried a rifle, the SKS.

"He and the other men were in the desert to steal drugs from drug traffickers, but he did not know what type of drugs or from whom they were going to steal the drugs," the agents later wrote in court documents. DNA from Rodriguez-Arvizu connected him to a tan jacket and a water jug found at the scene, according to court records.

After his arrest, a jury trial for Rodriguez-Arvizu was scheduled for March 2020, however the case was delayed repeatedly by arguments over evidence until August 2022, when Zipps oversaw a bench trial. After three days of hearings, Zipps found Rodriguez-Arvizu guilty on three counts.

For years, armed rip crews were operating in Southern Arizona's deserts, and it was an attempt to ambush and arrest one crew near Nogales that led to the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry on Dec. 14, 2010.

Terry, along with three other agents as part of the elite Border Patrol Tactical Unit, or BORTAC, were settled into an area known as Mesquite Seep for nearly 48 hours when they noticed men approaching from the east. As the armed men drew close,  one agent yelled "policia," or "police" in Spanish, and told the men to drop their weapons. One agent said he saw the men turn toward him, with their rifles at the "ready" position, so he fired a shotgun containing beanbag rounds. At some point the men returned fire, firing at least five rounds from their AK-47-patterned rifles.

During the exchange of gunfire, Terry was fatally wounded by a bullet that hit him in the back just above the hip, hitting his spine and severing his aorta.

The case became central to a firestorm of criticism against Obama-era officials, after an investigation showed that one of two AK-47-type rifles used by the rip crew was connected to a Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives investigation designed to track the sale of guns bought by straw purchasers in Phoenix-area gun stores and smuggled into Mexico.

However, the agency lost track of at least 2,000 of these weapons, including the one used to kill Terry.

Federal officials eventually tracked down and prosecuted the men linked to Terry's shooting.

Last week, Rodriguez-Arvizu attorney filed an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted the investigation in this case. The United States Attorney’s Office, District of Arizona, Tucson, handled the prosecution, said Cantu.

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