One year ago Monday, a Border Patrol chase through the streets of San Clemente ended with a carload of aliens slamming into a local bank and injuring seven of the car's occupants.
There was another chase, a crash and injuries about midnight Sunday. San Clemente officials--already upset about the incident a year ago--are outraged. They want to speed the planned relocation of the Border Patrol's checkpoint so that chases can be conducted outside city limits. And they plan to raise the subject of Border Patrol chases at the City Council's Jan. 6 meeting.
In Sunday night's 80 m.p.h. chase, a car carrying Mexican nationals swerved out of control and flipped over on Interstate 5, injuring all 10 occupants. Four are still hospitalized, including one who was seriously hurt.
After the Dec. 21, 1986, chase, San Clemente residents inundated city officials with complaints, and the council met with federal officials to receive assurances that public safety would be maintained in future pursuits.
Since then, the Border Patrol said it has conducted four to six high-speed pursuits per month of automobiles that run the Interstate 5 checkpoint after being instructed to pull over by a uniformed agent. But Sunday's chase was the first in a year involving major injuries. There had been several chases before December, 1986, that ended in injury accidents.
"We have had nothing but promises that things will change," San Clemente Mayor Pro Tem Brian Rice said Monday. "We don't see how the ends justify the means of putting lives in jeopardy who happen to be in the way. We just don't want to see it (Border Patrol chases) at all."
Rice said he will bring up the subject at the council's Jan. 6 meeting "to see if we can approach them again."
Charles Geer, agent in charge of the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 5, said he would be willing to meet with city officials, as he did last year. But Geer insisted that the latest chase, which occurred late at night on dry roads with little freeway traffic, followed the Border Patrol's written guidelines, issued two months ago.
"This chase should not have ended in an accident, (but) it did because of amateur driving on behalf of the smuggler," Geer said.
Geer said the car of the alleged smuggler, overloaded with human cargo, flipped over after the driver attempted to pass another vehicle on the right shoulder of the freeway while speeding north through San Clemente.
According to Border Patrol spokesman Mike Nicley in San Diego, the chase began about 11:45 p.m., when a 1974 Plymouth Duster failed to stop for a follow-up inspection in the northbound lanes of the immigration checkpoint. Two marked Border Patrol vehicles began the pursuit, which reached speeds of about 80 m.p.h., Nicley said.
Twelve miles later, south of the Camino de Estrella off-ramp, the Duster clipped the back of a taxicab while switching lanes and swerved out of control, the California Highway Patrol said. The cab driver was not injured. The Duster became airborne and then rolled down a 75-foot embankment, throwing out all of its occupants, CHP officers said.
Border Patrol agents and paramedics administered first aid at the scene. A medical helicopter airlifted one victim to Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, while the others were taken by ambulance to San Clemente General Hospital and Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo.
As of Monday, the injured included:
- Rigolberto Rosas, about 25, listed in serious condition at Mission Hospital.
- Ambrosio Valdoreno, 28, in fair condition at the same hospital.
- Martin Rivera, 20, in stable condition at San Clemente Hospital.
- Martin Campoverde, 18, in good condition at Western Medical Center, Santa Ana.
The other six, including two women, were treated and released at San Clemente Hospital.
CHP spokesman Ken Daily said the driver, still unidentified Monday, would face felony hit-and-run charges for not coming forward, as well as charges of speeding and evading arrest. But Daily said he doubts that any of the Mexican nationals will identify the driver.
Daily added that "it's amazing they weren't all killed," considering how far the vehicle rolled and that everyone was thrown out.
Peter Schey, executive director of the National Center for Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, said "these high-speed chases are highly questionable" because they generally involve people guilty of no more than administrative law violations, entering the country illegally.
"We're not dealing here with fleeing felons or otherwise dangerous suspects," Schey said, suggesting that the Border Patrol place suspicious vehicles under surveillance and wait until they get to a spot safer than a crowded freeway to try to pull them over.
When the controversy over Border Patrol chases surfaced after last December's accident, San Clemente officials called in Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) to help mediate the dispute with the Border Patrol.