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Immigrants Flee Van, Are Captured

Group from Mexico tries to run into hills near Yucaipa after CHP stops vehicle. Thirteen surrender but driver, accomplice escape.

March 13, 2004|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

Authorities captured 13 suspected illegal immigrants who fled into the foothills near Yucaipa after their van was stopped Friday morning by a California Highway Patrol officer near Interstate 10, but the driver and an accomplice remained at large. CHP Officer Karl Bakenhus tried to stop the Dodge van because it did not have license plates. The driver got off the freeway but didn't stop. He instead headed up a short dirt road surrounded by grassy hills.

"When it finally rolled slowly to a stop, a few jumped out first, then the whole bunch followed," Bakenhus said.

Nearly a dozen officers and a San Bernardino County sheriff's helicopter were called in to help with the search. Minutes later, 13 of the van's occupants walked down the hills with their hands up, surrendering to police.

"If we missed one or two, it was probably because they ran so quickly and got up into the orange orchards and trees above the hills," CHP Sgt. Fernando Contreras said. "The driver had more urgency to run because he faced criminal prosecution."

Contreras said the search was called off early Friday afternoon.

"If the driver had been apprehended, we could've done more with the investigation," said Agent John Marlborough of the Department of Homeland Security's border protection division. "We've determined the 13 we got were only looking to start their new lives in this country. They're on their way back to Mexico as we speak."

Marlborough said most of the immigrants told investigators they were from Oaxaca, where they departed March 3 and joined a second group from Sonora.

The group members crossed into the U.S. on Sunday, authorities said, and found their way to a so-called drop house in Phoenix. On Friday morning, the 13 were driven across the desert toward Los Angeles, where they hoped to find work, police said.

They spent the entire trip jammed in the back of a van. A small piece of carpet, a dirty blanket, a hamburger wrapper, an empty water bottle and a half-used roll of toilet paper were all that were found in the vehicle.

"This [smuggling] is something that's happening every day, and Arizona has become the hot spot in the U.S. for this type of activity," Marlborough said.

"When they say they were headed to L.A. to find work, they were probably headed to a clearinghouse, where they could've been sent to pick grapes up north, like in Monterey County, or be put on planes to all parts east."

Immigration officials have been increasingly troubled by the coordinated stashing and dispersal of undocumented immigrants in the Southwest.

On Feb. 12, 160 immigrants were found in a small home in Mesa, Ariz., a day after authorities raided a filthy house occupied by 64 immigrants in the Riverside County town of Perris.

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