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Questions remain over man's death in custody

He resisted arrest, was pepper-sprayed, then died. After six weeks, little more is known as two probes continue.

August 22, 2008|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

It's been six weeks since Tomas Sanchez Orzuna died in Border Patrol custody, but the questions of why and how remain unanswered.

Authorities say Sanchez fought with agents as they tried to arrest him July 8 in downtown San Clemente. He died within half an hour of being taken to the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 5 in San Diego County.

His sister, Rosario Sanchez Orzuna, said she has been unable to get any information about the incident from U.S. government officials, who have not returned her telephone calls. She said that when she saw her brother's body, there were bruises on his face.

San Diego County handled the autopsy. Medical examiner spokesman Rick Poggemeyer said that "the cause and manner of death has not been determined" and that his office is still investigating.

According to Border Patrol spokesman Mark Endicott, two agents were attempting to arrest Sanchez, who was in the country illegally, when he tried to run, then resisted. The agents used pepper spray and were assisted by an off-duty firefighter in subduing Sanchez, Endicott said.

"He was aggressive and noncompliant," Endicott said. "One agent deployed pepper spray, and he continued to resist." He said agents complied with agency guidelines in the use of force but he declined to comment about the firefighter's role in the arrest.

Sanchez was driven to the San Clemente checkpoint facility and arrived about 8 p.m. He showed "no unusual symptoms, was coherent and asked for water," Endicott said. But he collapsed and died less than 30 minutes later while being decontaminated for the pepper spray, the spokesman said.

Endicott said the agents were on routine patrol when they spotted Sanchez, who they said was acting suspiciously. He was unable to provide further details. He said he did not know if Sanchez was walking alone or with a group or if the incident occurred in the street or on a sidewalk. He also said he did not know the name of the firefighter who assisted the agents or where he works.

Rosario Sanchez arrived from Mexico on a temporary visa July 15. She said that she hoped to meet with U.S. officials to discuss her brother's death but that her calls have gone unanswered. Tomas Sanchez was buried Aug. 5 in his home town of Cuatla in the state of Morelos.

"I want to ask [authorities] to conduct a deep, thorough and independent investigation of my brother's death," she said in Spanish. "My brother shouldn't just be another statistic."

Besides the medical examiner's investigation, it appears the only probe into Sanchez's death is being done in-house by the Border Patrol.

"We don't know of anybody else who's looking at this," and the investigation is ongoing, Endicott said.

Spokespersons in San Diego County for the FBI, Sheriff's Department and district attorney said their offices are not investigating. In an e-mail, the spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego refused to say whether her office was involved.

Rosario Sanchez said her brother borrowed $2,500 to be smuggled into the United States three years ago. He settled in San Clemente, where he worked as a restaurant dishwasher. She said her brother had been in an Internet chat room with family members in Mexico hours before he died. Tomas Sanchez had eight siblings.

Mexican consular officials in San Diego called the family July 10 to notify them of her brother's death, she said.

"When they said he died on July 8 I didn't believe it because we had been in a chat room that day," said Rosario Sanchez. Since her arrival in Mission Viejo, she said, she has met with two men who said they saw the confrontation and said her brother was a victim of excessive force. Neither man could be reached for comment, and there is no indication that the two men contacted authorities.

Rosario Sanchez said she has also met with Mexican consular officials and consulted with local attorneys. She said she is awaiting the autopsy report before deciding whether the family should file a lawsuit against the Border Patrol. She discusses her brother's death in a Spanish language video at http://www.youtube.com/watch

"A human being died in the U.S. government's custody," Rosario Sanchez said. "I don't think it's asking too much for someone to find out why."

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hg.reza@latimes.com

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