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Man at center of bloody Phx shooting involving Homeland Security agents sentenced to 36 years in prison

Man at center of bloody Phx shooting involving Homeland Security agents sentenced to 36 years in prison

  • Paul Ingram/

A 38-year-old man who fired on Homeland Security agents during a 2019 traffic stop near Phoenix, setting off a firefight that killed a woman and wounded a federal officer, was sentenced to more than 36 years in prison Wednesday by a federal judge in Tucson.

Warren Evan Jose pleaded guilty in late December to five charges, including assault on a federal officer, firing a weapon during a crime of violence, and conspiracy to transport people into the country illegally for profit.

During an emotional hearing Wednesday, Jose and his attorney sought mercy from the court. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors and two federal agents argued for an extended prison term for Jose, linking him to a series of criminal acts, and noting that before the bloody incident unfolded, Jose had texted to a friend that he would never stop.

On April 11, 2019, four plain-clothes agents with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, began following Jose's Chevy Trailblazer. The agents—part of the HSI's Special Response Team—intended to stop Jose and arrest him on charges of human smuggling. This after a Mexican migrant told Tohono O'odham Police that just weeks earlier he'd been forcibly held at a house near Sells, Ariz. by Jose and three other people.

Believing Jose was taking "counter-surveillance" measures to evade arrest, the agents decided to stop his vehicle with a "pinch maneuver." At speeds reaching 65 miles per hour, the HSI agents tried the maneuver twice and failed. However, they eventually succeeded on a residential street, leading to a collision that sent two agents in an unmarked truck careening over a curb, through a tree before crashing into a cinder block wall. Another agent blocked Jose with his vehicle.

Prosecutors said Jose got out of his vehicle and fired at the agents with a Century Arms C39V2 AK-47-style pistol, and the agents— Marcus Camacho, Jeff Hemphill, Richard Mortensen and Bryan Altieri — responded with a fusillade of gunfire with pistols and a M4 carbine. Over 100 rounds were fired in just 36 seconds.

Five people were in the Chevy Trailblazer, including Jose, and three of them were hit. Genaro Jimenez-Sanchez was shot multiple times and later underwent surgery, while Theresa Medina Thomas—the driver—was shot multiple times and died at the scene.

Jose was shot in the forehead and back, and bullets grazed his neck. The bullet that hit his forehead lodged in his jaw, and was later removed during surgery. Two other women in the car—Maria Martinez-Luna and Valentina Valenzuela—were not hit.

Camacho was wounded by shrapnel as bullets from Jose's gun punched through the frame of his driver's side window, and another agent complained of back problems from the crash through the block wall.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Serra Tsethlikai sought 40 to 45 years, arguing Jose's imprisonment was "in the interest of justice as the defendant set off a chain of events with deadly consequence." U.S. District Judge Scott H. Rash, however, sentenced Jose to 440 months in prison, along with $2,890 in restitution for Thomas' funeral, and a $500 fine.

Jose linked to kidnapping in Tempe

HSI agents targeted Jose after he was linked to an incident on the Tohono O'odham Nation, when four people allegedly took a Mexican migrant to their home and demanded money from him and his family members.

On March 20, 2019, near Sells, Tohono O'odham Department police officers said they found Adrian Hernandez Morales suffering from dehydration and blistered feet. The officers took Morales to a nearby hospital where he said he had crossed into the U.S. illegally during the midnight hours of March 18. Injured during the crossing, Morales was abandoned by his foot guide and he walked toward Sells along Highway 86 where he was found by four people in a red GMC Yukon, according to court records.

Morales told the TOPD officers the four people offered to take him to the hospital, but instead they took him to a house where he was kept, threatened with a knife and "told to shut up." They took his personal property, and asked Morales about his final destination. They also pressed the injured migrant on how much money he had, and if he "knew anyone that had money to pay for him."

Morales escaped through a window later that day, and flagged down TOPD. Morales later described the driver as Jose, and police linked the red GMC Yukon to Jose. Two people were later arrested, including Johnson Ortiz, who allegedly threatened Morales with the knife.

Tsethlika noted that according to a pre-sentencing report, developed by court officials as part of a plea agreement, Jose was linked to smuggling since at least 2018. On Nov. 4, 2018,  Tempe police officers received a 911 call from a Guatemalan man who said after making arrangements to be smuggled into the U.S., Jose and others held him against his will at a hotel, demanding $15,000 to release him, she said.

Officers went to the hotel and found the defendant sleeping with a fully loaded Glock handgun and cocaine in his pocket, wrote Tsethlikai. She added that since he was 21-years-old, Jose has had a series of run-ins with the law, and his criminal history included two felonies—possession of narcotic for sale, and aggravated driving under the influence. Since 2012, Jose has "been arrested, charged and convicted in state or tribal courts in eleven different cases," Tsethlikai wrote.

Sentencing hearing

After Tsethlikai read a statement from Thomas' family forgiving Jose for his actions, two HSI agents delivered victim impact statements to the court.

Agent Hemphill called immigration a "highly-complex and overly politicized issue."

"American citizens are intimately involved with the cartels," he said, adding Jose "attempted to murder me and my team" over money and greed. He said agents used lights and sirens to identify themselves, and Jose "chose not to stop," resulting in an accident that sent his colleagues into a "vehicle accident that could have killed them."

During his statement, Hemphill showed two photos: the first showed the truck carrying Agents Mortensen and Altieri, while the second showed the driver's-side door of his vehicle riddled with  more than a dozen bullet holes in the metal. Hemphill described how he leaned down to grab his firearm, and said he could hear bullets "combust" as they passed by him and dug into the headrest.

"Jose had choices, and he chose to be violent and attempted to murder me and my colleagues," Hemphill said, adding Jose "must be held accountable — he chose his actions that day."

Agent Camacho spoke next, telling Rash that the four agents involved still "share impacts" from the violence of that day, including night sweats and questions about whether their decisions that day "were correct."

Alteri has not returned to work, he said. Camacho noted most of the agents have previous combat experience, and "all that past trauma in service to the nation is fresh everyday. There's not closure in something like this."

He said he was the first person to receive fire after watching his fellow agents "slam through a tree and into a brick wall."

"My only thought was, how do I end this situation," he said. "I know the sound of an AK-47," he said, adding that he was hit by a ricochet and had shrapnel in his arm. He said the worst moment of the incident was "hearing voices of my partners as they were arriving" and told the court they were worried about Alteri because he was having a hard time breathing, and they thought he'd been hit. He also said Jose fired at him, turned and fired at Morteson, and then zeroed in on him again.

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office reviewed the incident and found HSI agents violated officer-involved-shooting protocols because they didn't answering detailed questions at the scene about the shooting. In a letter to A. Scott Brown, the special agent in charge of HSI Phoenix, prosecutors said the failure to follow OIS protocols forced prosecutors to "rely upon secondary sources and limits the degree to which involved agents can be fully and confidently cleared of any wrongdoing," according to court records.

However, they concluded "there is insufficient evidence to rebut the involved agents’ subsequent statements of reasonable belief of imminent use of deadly physical force by the decedent."

Tsethlikai returned and spent 15 minutes telling the court about Jose's actions and noted he was armed with the AK-47-style pistol and had "multiple mags and hundreds of bullets."

She noted that one of the two women Jose was smuggling "fixated" on the AK-47, and he used his phone to translate a message, telling her the weapon wasn't for her.

"Why did he need that AK-47 to transport two individuals to Phoenix," asked Tsethlikai. "Why? Because this was all about money, and he was protecting his source of money."

She said he knew police were following him after Thomas pulled into a Jack-in-the-Box parking lot. "Fucking cops," he said, according to court records. Nonetheless, Thomas kept driving, despite knowing they were being followed by police and "not an armed rip-crew" attempting to rob them.

Tsethlikai also told the court Jose had repeatedly texted a person known only as "Dee" and sent six photos, including one photo of himself holding the AK-47 with the words written over the photo "Never Fukn Stop."

"Ironically, in the last text/photo that he sent out that day, the defendant sent what appears to be the same photo with him holding the same firearm but this time with the words 'Murder On My Mind' written over the photo," Tsethlikai wrote. "These texts and photos were sent before his shootout with the agents by several hours."

Jose's attorney Erin Carrillo desperately argued for a shorter prison term, telling the court her client was raised in poverty where "alcohol abuse, infidelity and neglect were commonplace in the Jose household."

"By the time he reached early adolescence he had been repeatedly exposed to domestic violence, death by suicide and drug overdose, poverty, neglect, alcoholism and drug abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and criminal activity," Carrillo wrote. She said Jose was "often left to fend for himself, sometimes for weeks at a time," and said when Jose was just 9-years-old, he was ordered to watch a "stash house." Handed a gun, Jose "spent the night in a tree-fort watching over the house, scared about who or what he might face," Carillo wrote. "The following day, he was given a roll of money and told never to tell his parents what he had done."

Carrillo said Jose came to court "with a heavy heart, knowing that nothing can be done to change the past, despair of what that actually means, cannot do anything to change what has been done."

She also argued Jose didn't fire the first shots, rather it was one of the HSI agents who fired, and Jose responded by shooting back. 

In a briefing to the court, Martinez-Luna, who was in the car during the shootout, disagreed and described the sequence of events simply as: "Jose speaks, grabs gun, crash, car turns, Jose fires."

Jimenez-Sanchez, who was wounded during the gunfight, said he felt pressure in his ears from the gunshots "as though someone exploded a firework directly next to him."

"He told agents that the first gunshot was very loud; so loud that it hurt his ears; he thought he was going deaf," wrote Tsethlikai. "This suggests that the windows of the vehicle were closed at the time and that the windows were all intact, meaning that the agents had not hit the windows at the time the defendant fired his AK-47 assault weapon."

"We agree his conduct was terrible, his conduct awful," she said. Jose should have never possessed a firearm, she said. However, while prosecutors noted there were "hundreds of rounds" of ammunition in the car, she said they weren't "sitting at his feet, or in the driver's console" rather, he had 452 rounds of 7.62x39mm ammunition stashed in boxes in his trunk.

During the firefight, he fired 21 rounds. One magazine jammed, and Jose reloaded and exhausted the second magazine before he was shot in the forehead.

'I'm embarrassed'

Clad in a orange jumpsuit, and restrained with shackles, Jose spoke in his defense.

For nearly 20 minutes, Jose pleaded for mercy from the court, describing a painful childhood and how his life went awry following back surgery when he was 11. With over a dozen family members tucked into the courtroom, Jose apologized to the Thomas family, and said he got into drugs and gangs as a young man. He later became involved in human smuggling, adding "half the reservation is involved in this. It's a different world out there," Jose said.

"I'm really sorry," he said. "It sucks being on this side, it sucks standing here. It's ugly, the picture that they have of me, with the AK that was somebody trying to be someone else. I'm embarrassed to even be a part of that."

Rash said he found Jose's remorse "genuine" and is "hopeful he can make a difference." However, he said the court found several aggravating circumstances, including the fact Jose was a prohibited possessor when he had the AK-47 and multiple magazines. He also said the texts show he knew he was committing a crime, and was "prepared for a shootout." 

Rash sentenced Jose to 200 months for most of the charges, including credit for time served, and ordered Jose to spend 120 months on two additional charges to be served consecutively. Following his prison term, Jose will face five years probation.

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