PHOENIX — A recent fatal shootout between federal officers in Arizona and a suspected migrant smuggler packing an AK-47 has provided a glimpse inside the brutal tactics of traffickers who sometimes prey on recent border-crossers, even holding them against their will to shake down their families.
Special agents from Homeland Security Investigations were tailing a tan Chevrolet Trailbrazer SUV in Phoenix earlier this month because it was linked to the hostage-taking of migrants in southern Arizona near the border, according to federal court records.
The woman driving the vehicle, Theresa Medina Thomas, 29, was caught in the crossfire and killed April 11 when the agents moved in to arrest Warren Earl Jose, 35, who was sitting in the front passenger seat with the automatic rifle.
Jose is now being held on suspicion of federal charges including conspiracy to transport migrants that resulted in death and assault on a federal officer with a dangerous weapon.
His Tucson-based defense attorney Erin Michelle Carrillo did not respond to a request for comment. Authorities also arrested a second suspect, Valentina Valenzuela, 23, who sat in the back seat and was apparently a translator for two Spanish-speaking migrants, a man and an adolescent girl.
Valenzuela's case was assigned to the federal defender's office in Tucson, which also did not answer emails from The Associated Press.
The agents recognized the SUV as being registered to Jose's wife. They were investigating Jose in the hostage-taking of a Mexican migrant who escaped in March from a house in Sells, Arizona, where he was being held against his will.
Jose was driving the SUV earlier when he collected the migrants near the border on the Tohono O'odham reservation. He then picked up U.S. citizens Thomas and Valenzuela and they set off for the hours-long trek to Phoenix. Somewhere along the way, Jose had Thomas take the wheel while Jose sat in the front passenger seat.
Agents spotted the SUV on Interstate 10 in Phoenix and chased it leaving the freeway. Agents turned on their emergency lights and sirens and the SUV took off, struck several vehicles and caused one agent's vehicle to slam into a wall.
Court records allege Jose then fired at the agents and the officers shot back, killing Thomas.
Four agents were injured and are no longer hospitalized, said Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, a spokeswoman for ICE.
Phoenix police said Jose, Valenzuela and the migrants also had non-life threatening injuries.
The agents were looking for Jose as the suspected driver of a vehicle that picked up a Mexican migrant named Adrian Hernandez Morales in Sells on March 17.
Hernandez Morales was dehydrated and had blistered feet after crossing the border through the desert and told Jose and several others in the SUV he needed medical treatment. They allegedly told him they would take him to the hospital, but instead drove him to the residence where they took away his cell phone and wallet and asked about his travel plans and family. One man threatened him with a knife.
Hernandez Morales escaped from the home several days later and went to a hospital where he told authorities about his ordeal.
Agents found five more migrants when they went to the home to investigate.
They arrested two additional suspects, Johnson Ortiz and Regina Ramona, on suspicion of conspiring to take Hernandez Morales hostage to get his family to pay for his release, as well as transporting and harboring the other migrants.