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4 Killed as SUV Evading U.S. Agents Overturns

September 29, 2003|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

An SUV carrying suspected illegal immigrants that evaded U.S. Border Patrol agents for at least 10 miles overturned on a desert highway Sunday afternoon, killing four people and injuring 17 others, authorities said.

The vehicle, a Chevrolet Suburban, rolled over on westbound California 78 in Imperial County, about 20 miles north of the Mexican border, said William Robbins, a spokesman for the Border Patrol.

Robbins said agents had signaled the van with their lights and tried to stop it with a spike strip on a rural road near the highway. But the Suburban swerved around the strip and continued west, eventually taking California 78.

After the agents saw that the driver was not stopping, they ceased the pursuit by turning off their roof lights, Robbins said. They followed the vehicle in case it dropped off passengers, he said.

Authorities believed one of the Suburban's wheels may have come off before the rollover. Robbins said the agents did not witness the accident.

The injured were taken by helicopter and ambulance to two area hospitals. The identities of the dead and injured were not known Sunday night.

California 78 was closed for several hours after the 5:30 p.m. crash.

Mexican officials in the past have criticized U.S. enforcement agencies for their high-speed pursuits of vehicles carrying suspected illegal immigrants.

In March, two men died and 20 people were injured when a truck swerved to miss a CHP spike strip and crashed on Interstate 8.

Robbins said that the agents were aware of the past incidents and acted cautiously.

"We don't want to stay on top of them because we don't want to cause an accident," he said. "In this case, the wheel came off and the van flipped."

The male driver of the van, who was pinned behind the steering wheel, was hospitalized and will be charged with alien smuggling, although the extent of his injuries was unknown, Robbins said.

The immigrants were spotted by a witness getting into the Suburban at Pichaco State Park, a transit point used by undocumented immigrants trying to avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint near Andrade, he said.

The crash Sunday was the latest in a series of accidents involving suspected smuggling of illegal immigrants that have left more than a dozen people dead in the last two years.

In January, three women were killed and 12 people were injured when a pickup truck ran over a spike strip and then crashed into a guardrail.

Last year, a van full of undocumented immigrants was traveling the wrong way in an attempt to evade a Border Patrol checkpoint when it struck four oncoming vehicles, killing six.

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