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The State

Border Patrol Launches Probe of Fatal Crash

Pursuit of a pickup truck carrying suspected illegal immigrants appears to have been justified, an agency spokesman says.

January 11, 2003|Beth Silver | Special to The Times

SAN DIEGO — The U.S. Border Patrol began investigating Friday whether its agents were right to pursue a truckload of suspected illegal immigrants after a chase on Thursday that left two dead and 13 injured.

Border Patrol spokesman Raleigh Leonard said the agency has a strict pursuit policy which states that agents should give chase when the suspects pose a threat to others.

Thursday's crash appeared to be one of those cases, Leonard said.

"He could very well have killed other people on that highway," Leonard said of the truck driver.

The driver remained under guard in a San Diego hospital. His condition was unknown. He is believed to be a Mexican national between 18 and 20 years old, said CHP Officer Brian Pennings.

The driver faces charges of murder, reckless driving, child endangerment and driving without a license, the California Highway Patrol said.

The San Diego County coroner's office identified one of the two women killed in the crash as Victoria Sanchez Garza, 17, of Mexico. Her husband was critically injured. The other woman's name was not released pending notification of relatives.

The women were thrown down a 30-foot highway embankment when the truck hit a guardrail on Interstate 8 near Descanso and rolled over. Many of the suspected illegal immigrants inside were huddled under a plastic tarp in the bed of the Ford F-150 pickup truck.

Agents attempted to stop the pickup after receiving a call from a witness who said the truck appeared to be carrying illegal immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border near Tecate.

When the truck failed to stop, Border Patrol agents rolled out a spike strip in an attempt to puncture the truck's tires. The driver avoided the strip and attempted to run over an agent, Leonard said.

A second attempt also failed. The truck finally struck a third spike strip, which slowly deflated a front tire.

But the truck continued down the highway at about 80 mph, swerving across lanes, Leonard said, until it slammed into the guardrail on a bridge over California 79 at about 4:30 Thursday afternoon, he said.

It was unclear whether the agents ever engaged in a high-speed pursuit, Leonard said. The spike strips were set by separate agents during the 30-minute chase, he said.

"They were hopscotching ahead of this individual," he said.

Leonard said questions about details of the pursuit would be addressed by the investigation.

Mario Cuevas of the Mexican Consulate in San Diego said he has requested a report on the Border Patrol's investigation.

"We need an explanation from them," he said.

In Washington, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), also asked for a report.

Dorgan said he learned of the crash on television. He said he sent a letter to Border Patrol officials asking for the agency's policy on high-speed chases and whether its agents followed it.

"The cost of that pursuit in terms of human life and injury is substantial," Dorgan said. "It's something that needs to be investigated."

Dorgan's mother was killed 16 years ago in a police pursuit on her way home from visiting a friend in the hospital. Police were chasing a drunk driver when the suspect's truck crashed into his mother's car.

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