Federal Agents Deputized By Cochise County Sheriff Identify Driver In December Fatal I-10 Accident

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Roberto Medina [Photo courtesy Cochise County Sheriff's Office]

A Tucson man recently charged with manslaughter for the December death of a Mexican national following a car crash on Interstate 10 near Benson was connected to the death by federal agents who have been deputized by the Cochise County sheriff.

Roberto Medina had been indicted by a county grand jury for the Dec. 18 death of Domingo Salmoran Manchuca who was found alone next to a battered black Ford Expedition. When deputies went to serve Medina with the indictment he was easy to find – he was in the Cochise County jail awaiting trial for unlawful flight or evasion from a pursing law enforcement during a Jan. 9 incident.

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Court records show that on Jan. 9, several undocumented non-U.S. citizens (UNCs) were seen getting out of a recreational vehicle in Naco and getting into a Ford F150 which the U.S. Border Patrol then attempted to pull over. However, the driver sped away and evaded USBP agents. A short time later the vehicle was found in the desert near Tombstone without a driver or any passengers.

Special agents with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and its Human Smuggling Strike Team quickly tied Medina, 50, to the incident via a cell phone and state I.D. card left behind in the truck.

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and has more than 400 personnel in Arizona, according to Scott Brown, HSI-Phoenix’s Special Agent in Charge. Several agents have been deputized by Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, making it easier for the Cochise County Attorney’s Office to prosecute state crimes identified during an HSI operation.

On Jan. 11, members of the HSI Human Smuggling Strike Team arrested Scott Allen Lee, who lived in the RV in Naco. During a post-Miranda interview, Lee confirmed Medina was driving the F150 on Jan. 9 when it picked up two UNCs.

Lee also provided a bombshell – Medina had been in a collision in December while transporting six or seven UNCs in a black Ford Expedition. It did not take long for HSI investigators to locate the accident. .

On Dec. 18, state troopers responded to a rollover with injuries on westbound I-10 at the Mescal exit, milepost 297. They found Manchuca alone near the Expedition. He died a short time later. .

According to an HSI report, Medina agreed to a post-Miranda interview, reportedly admitting to engaging in human smuggling activities with Lee “several times.” Medina also said he would drive various vehicles provided by Saul Parra, a family member, in exchange for payment.

As to the Dec. 18 crash, Medina said he ran away from the scene and called Parra, to whom the Expedition was registered. Parra traveled to the Mescal area to retrieve Medina and five UNCs who he then took to Phoenix. He also reported the Expedition stolen.

HSI investigators also interviewed Parra.

“Parra stated that Medina told him one of the UNCs was lying unconscious following the collision and that he tried to get him up but was unsuccessful and ultimately left him at the scene,” the HSI report notes.

A June 30 speedy trial deadline has been set for Medina’s Jan. 9 failure to yield case, while his manslaughter case has a July 7 deadline. Medina will be back in Cochise County Superior Court for a March 14 pretrial conference in both cases.

Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre says the circumstances under which HSI tied Medina to the two incidents highlights the strong commitment among local, state, and federal law enforcement officials to work together to address the growing human smuggling problem in Cochise County, which shares 83 miles of border with Mexico.

“As I’ve said many times, we are very fortunate in this community to have a true partnership between agencies,” McIntyre told Arizona Daily Independent. “We have been aggressively pursuing all state charges that we can on smugglers. The Federal agencies know that with a phone call or an email they can get results in cases rather than having to exclusively rely on the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

Meanwhile, failure to yield, or pull over, for a marked law enforcement vehicle is a felony, one which is on the rise across southern Arizona, according to HSI-Phoenix SAC Brown.

In November, a 65-year-old Benson woman was instantly killed on State Route 90 in Whetstone when her vehicle was sheared in half from the impact of a car driven by a Mesa teen who failed to yield to USBP while smuggling two UNCs. As a result, 16-year-old Felix Mendez is facing a first-degree murder charge as well as weapons charges after a handgun was found in the vehicle.

McIntyre rejects the sentiments from some that drivers are being too severely punished while the recruiters, coyotes, and coordinators too often go free, while keeping the majority of the money involved in human smuggling.

“The current trends in recruitment of drivers have created public safety issues for all of us,” he said of the increased number of failure to yield incidents. “Over the years I’ve heard over and over about how we ‘need’ to go after the bigger fish. While that is an understandable desire, the low level person is the direct threat to our community.”

Brown and McIntyre agree that proliferation of social media and encrypted apps currently used by human smuggling operators ensures that the lower level players -the drivers and stash house hosts- usually have little useful information to help investigators track to the bigger fish. And while obtaining intel “is always important,” McIntyre believes ensuring consequences for those who making Arizona’s roadways unsafe is just as important.”

“Our community is paying the price for the smuggling activity, regardless of the underlying reasons why someone might chose to be involved in this,” he noted. “Poverty, drug use, etc., doesn’t equate to a pass for criminal behavior. Quick money is dirty money, it always has been and always will be.”