Two sentenced to life in prison for murder of Brian Terry
Two men were sentenced to life in prison by a federal judge Wednesday for their role in the 2010 murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Jesus Leonel Sanchez-Meza and Ivan Soto-Barraza were given mandatory life sentences for the killing, along with an additional 10 years each for carrying a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. Both men were also sentenced to 20 years for conspiracy and assault on three federal agents, terms that will be served concurrently with their life sentences.
Sanchez-Meza and Ivan Soto-Barraza were found guilty on three other counts by a federal jury in October, but those counts were vacated by the prosecution based on the case of United States v. James. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that some counts should be held back based on a possibility that stacking some charges that likely "do not have any practical effect" would constitute double jeopardy, the prosecution wrote.
However, if the first-degree murder conviction is overturned on appeal, the other three counts will return, said prosecutors.
Sanchez-Mesa and Soto-Barraza were part of a five-man "rip crew" who allegedly robbed drug smugglers in the Sonoran Desert near Rio Rico, south of Tucson. The armed men would intimated smugglers into giving up their loads of marijuana and then hand over the drugs to other co-conspirators and sell the drugs for a profit.
However, on Dec. 14, 2010, the group of bandits encountered Terry and three other Border Patrol agents, who were part of an operation designed to catch rip crews operating in the area.
As the men approached, one the agents yelled "policia," or "police" in Spanish, and told the men to drop their weapons. A firefight broke out, and Terry was fatally wounded by a bullet that hit him just above the hip.
Both men denied they fired the weapons, claiming that they turned and ran when the agents yelled "police" and then began firing shotguns loaded with "less-than-lethal" beanbag rounds. The men also argued in court that their group returned fire in self-defense.
During the sentencing hearing, Terry's sister Kelly Terry-Willis said that her brother was her "hero."
"When these men made the decision to enter the United States, pick up weapons and begin their mission they knew the consequences of what they were doing. They knew someone would get hurt, but that did not stop them because their greed was much more powerful than having a conscious," she said.
"I believe evil lives inside of them," she said.
Terry-Willis acknowledged the nearly two dozen uniformed Border Patrol agents in the courtroom, saying that they too lost a bother.
During the hearing, Andrea Matheson, one of the defense attorneys, questioned the fairness of her client's life sentence, arguing that U.S. attorneys had accepted plea agreements from two other men linked with the murder, and they had received lighter sentences.
Manuel Osorio-Arellanes was wounded during the gunfight, and sentenced to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty for his role in the murder in February 2014. And, in October, the recruiter who put together the group, Rosario Rafael Burbot-Alvarez, was sentenced to 27 years in prison after also pleading guilty to first-degree murder.
Another man, Rito Osorio-Arellanes, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery and was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2013.
Two AK-47-patterned rifles found at the scene were immediately connected to a Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives operation designed to track the sale of guns bought by straw purchasers in Phoenix-area gun stores and smuggled into Mexico.
Known as "gun walking," the operation was designed to track the weapons to high-level cartel members, however, the operation was fundamentally flawed and soon it became clear that federal officials had lost track of more than 1,700 firearms, including AK-47 variants, .50-caliber sniper rifles, and dozens of handguns. Most of the guns reportedly went to the Sinaloa cartel, and the Mexican government claimed that at least 500 murders were connected to the lost guns.
Ultimately, the agency recovered around 700 of the weapons. The ATF operation, dubbed "Fast and Furious," became the focus of a congressional investigation that ultimately led to a contempt hearing for former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Fallout from the case forced U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke to resign, and the U.S. Attorney's Office of Arizona had to recuse itself from the case.