Chance To Earn Big Bucks Attracts Maricopa County Residents To Drive Migrants From Border Despite Risks

Felix Mendez [Photo courtesy Cochise County Sheriff's Office]

Last Saturday was supposed to be a celebration of Wanda Sitoski’s 65th birthday, but she never made it to Sierra Vista restaurant for a family party. Instead, Sitoski was killed when a Mesa teen smuggling two undocumented immigrants ran a red light and split Sitoski’s Ford Focus in half on a state highway in Cochise County.

The Oct. 30 crash involving 16-year-old Felix Mendez is the third serious incident this year involving Maricopa County residents being recruited to haul people from the border for payment. Edward Fritsch, Sitoski’s son, learned of her death when he returned from the restaurant after waiting for her to arrive.

“I found out when I drove home and the police were waiting for me,” Fritsch shared on social media. “My mom was so looking forward to her birthday and retirement.”

Fritsch added that he is very angry and saddened at the loss of his mother, who he said, “was funny, determined, and made me a better person.” He closed his comment by noting he hopes “no one else experiences a similar trauma in your life.”

LEARN MORE ABOUT SITOSKI’S DEATH: Woman Killed In Cochise County When Mesa Teen Runs Red Light Following High Speed Pursuit

Many human trafficking efforts by out-of-towners end with arrests in Cochise and Santa Cruz counties before anyone gets hurt. But local, state, and federal law enforcement officials tell Arizona Daily Independent that the criminal activity will not end unless three things happen soon.

First, they say the U.S. / Mexico border needs to be secured in order to cut off the high demand for transportation going out of border counties. Second, there needs to be more publicity across Arizona of the criminal prosecutions occurring in state court against those engaged in human trafficking, even if federal authorities appear to be lax in pursuing such cases.

And the third change involves the social media platforms used by undocumented immigrants and drivers-for-hire to communicate with coyotes and those involved with coordinating illegal border crossings and the rides.

“If Facebook and other social media platforms can develop ways to identify messages involving child pornography and drug deals, they can certainly find a way to impede the exchange of information about human trafficking or at the very least report it after the fact so we can follow up on the criminal activity,” one federal official told Arizona Daily Independent.

It is also important for parents, lawmakers, and teachers to understand what is motivating the majority of young people to break the law and put people’s lives at risk – money.

According to several investigators who have interviewed teens and young adults caught transporting people for profit, the payoff can be $1,000, even $2,000 for a six- or even eight-hour drive.

“Yes, there are big bucks to be made but they really don’t understand the risks involved,” one officer said in the aftermath of Sitoski’s death. Another said young people engaging in human trafficking “are doing it for the money, plain and simple” across all socioeconomic groups.

That payoff can look attractive to someone who does not appreciate the potential lengthy prison terms being handed out by state judges. Which is what William Maurice Brown learned earlier this year when he was arrested in Bisbee after lost control of a pickup truck carrying several undocumented border crossers.

Brown, also from Mesa, entered a traffic circle at high speed, causing the truck to roll. Two of the occupants died, prompting Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre to file 14 felonies against Brown, 27. Four of those counts involve murder charges.

The prosecution of Alexander Barron is another example of the long-term consequences of human trafficking, even though no one died when Barron, a Somerton resident, flipped a vehicle carrying several immigrants trying to enter onto Interstate 10 near Benson in January.

Barron, now 17, was convicted as an adult in June of seven felonies for his actions.

It is not yet known how much Mendez expected to be paid for his trip to Cochise County which ended Saturday with Sitoski’s death and significant injuries to the two passengers riding with Mendez. Little was said during his initial court appearance from jail on Sunday at which time he was ordered held in custody in lieu of $50,000 bail on a manslaughter charge and other felonies.

Mendez is currently being prosecuted as an adult. Both the seriousness of the criminal charges and his bail are expected to increase this week when McIntyre’s office gets the case file.