War ZoneFederal agents from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were pursuing a suspected human smuggler they’d been tracking for days. In three unmarked pickups, four plainclothes members of HSI’s Special Response Team followed the suspect’s SUV as it exited Interstate 10 south of Phoenix, took an unexpected turn and headed into a community of neat stucco homes and walking trails. As the convoy barreled through the neighborhood, the agents decided to conduct a high-risk maneuver intended to force the SUV to stop. Instead, within seconds, an HSI pickup lay atop a downed tree halfway through a garden block wall, the driver of the SUV was dead from multiple gunshots, and her four passengers, including the alleged smuggler and a teenage girl, were wounded or injured. The April 11, 2019, shootout in Ahwatukee, although extreme, was not an isolated incident. Since 2011, there have been at least 13 shootings involving HSI agents – most in 2018-19, according to an investigation by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism. Reporters found media reports on other HSI-involved shootings, but could not independently confirm the details and did not include them in the count. It’s not clear how many HSI shootings have occurred in the U.S. because ICE officials refused to answer questions and the agency’s data is not made publicly available. The Howard Center also found that at least five people had been killed and 11 others, including a 4-year-old boy, had been wounded or injured by HSI agent shootings, which often occurred in parking lots outside strip malls or restaurants. All but three of the victims were black, Hispanic or Native American. One suspect in California was shot in the back, and an innocent man in the same state was mistakenly shot at after dropping off a child at school. Another man in Chicago, who was not a suspect, was wounded in his home, the Howard Center found. HSI was created in 2010 and is the main investigative unit of the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of ICE. Its more than 7,000 agents have broad legal authority to investigate an array of cross-border crimes, from child pornography and human smuggling to art theft and financial crimes. Yet its operations are largely overshadowed by the department’s detention units and immigration roundups. Furthermore, federal shooting incidents have escaped the kind of scrutiny faced by state and local law enforcement officers involved in shootings of unarmed black men, which gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and community policing reforms. Experts say that’s no accident: Federal agencies have hoarded their shooting data, making it nearly impossible for independent analyses of their policies and practices. “A lot of (local police) departments are transparent,” said Geoffrey Alpert, an internationally recognized criminal justice expert who has studied high-risk police activities for more than three decades. “The federal government chooses not to be.” What little is known about HSI operations comes largely from Department of Homeland Security inspector-general reports, which have criticized ICE for following an outdated use of force policy from 2004. Auditors have also faulted Homeland Security for inadequate oversight and management of its agencies as well as not doing enough to minimize the risk of improper use of force. The reports have also noted problems with training, challenges that were exacerbated in 2017 after President Donald Trump directed Homeland Security to hire 15,000 new agents and officers – 10,000 alone for ICE. All this has raised questions about accountability. In every shooting examined by the Howard Center, HSI agents said they fired in self-defense. Internal investigations, if they occur, are not made public. No agent has been charged in any of the shootings, though one related civil rights lawsuit was settled out of court. Two other federal lawsuits are pending. Common themes include HSI agents calling 911 for help after a shooting, refusing to answer questions at the scene, leaving without conducting walk-throughs with local police and giving statements only days later with their lawyers present. Officials from ICE and HSI refused repeated requests from Howard Center reporters for interviews or to answer written questions. The Phoenix Police Department, in response to a public records request, released its full investigative report on the Ahwatukee shooting, including 911 calls, body cam videos, agent and suspect interviews, and thousands of crime scene photos. However, one piece of evidence that was released _ recorded sounds of the shootout picked up by a nearby home security system _ was not analyzed by police. A review of that recording, conducted for the Howard Center by two national ballistics experts, found that handguns like those used by HSI agents were the first to fire, contradicting the official narrative that the “bad guy” shot first. Phoenix police officials would not publicly discuss their investigation, although privately some officers were critical of HSI’s tactics. The prosecuting attorney for Maricopa County, which has jurisdiction for the Phoenix area, also criticized agents for refusing to follow protocols for officer-involved shootings, saying that limited “the degree to which involved agents can be fully and confidently cleared of any wrongdoing.” HSI agent-involved shootings elsewhere around the country are sometimes documented in local police records, or in court proceedings and civil rights lawsuits. But investigations, if they occur, are not always made public or are limited in scope, leaving many unresolved questions. “It’s a major concern, the accountability of people who have the power to deprive us of life and liberty,” said George Kirkham, criminology professor-emeritus at Florida State University who has consulted on more than 1,500 law enforcement cases. “It’s an honorable profession, and the people who do it do a tough and important job. But they must be held to account.”
The ChaseFrank Guy was pruning bushes when he heard the siren. Climbing up on his garden bench to peer over the retaining wall, he saw unmarked trucks trailing an SUV. A car chase, he recalled thinking. “As soon as I got down, I heard this huge crash,” Guy said. “It was like a mini atom bomb. It looked like a mushroom cloud of trees and branches and leaves and dust and concrete.” And then the shooting started. His wife pleaded for him to come inside to escape the gunfire. His adult stepdaughter dropped to the floor of her bedroom and dialed 911. “There’s gunfire, there’s an accident,” a breathless Michelle McMaster told the emergency operator. “How many shots?” the dispatcher inquired. “How many shots? How many shots? Hundreds!” McMaster shouted into the phone. The chaos that unfolded about 400 feet away was not part of the plan. Since late March, Homeland Security Investigations agents had been tracking Warren Jose, a suspect in an alleged immigrant smuggling operation out of Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation along the Arizona-Mexico border. Agent Chad Lakosky obtained an arrest warrant on April 9 and began planning Jose’s capture. Because Jose had an arrest record that included allegations of human smuggling, aggravated assault and illegal weapons possession, Lakosky said he called for help from HSI’s Special Response Team, a SWAT unit. Response team agents said they were warned that Jose had a history of not complying with law enforcement and would likely be armed. Agents planned to arrest Jose on April 11 in the parking lot of a hotel along I-10 just south of metro Phoenix, where his Chevrolet Trailblazer had been spotted the day before. But instead of staying the night, Jose had returned to the border after getting a call about two migrants in Sells who needed transport to Phoenix. By this point, Jose later told Phoenix police, he was too tired to drive alone and called some friends from the reservation for help. Valentina Valenzuela and Theresa Medina Thomas had been out late partying in Sells and agreed to join Jose on the drive back to Phoenix.
Around 4 a.m., the group picked up the two migrants. One of them, Maria Martinez-Luna, 17, later told police that Jose had an AK-47 lying on the front-seat console but had told her not to be afraid because the gun wasn’t for her. As they drove north, Jose and the two women smoked cigarettes and drugs and passed around a bottle of Bacardi rum, music blaring on the radio. “We were jamming out,” Jose would later say. Drug paraphernalia was found scattered about the SUV after the shooting. A license plate reader picked up the Trailblazer as it approached I-10, alerting the HSI agents that their suspect was nearing. Midway through the trip, Medina Thomas took over the wheel so Jose could sleep, he told police. Agents had expected Jose to drive back to the hotel where he’d been spotted the day before. But instead of turning east after exiting the interstate, Medina Thomas turned west and headed toward Ahwatukee, separated from the rest of Phoenix by South Mountain. While agents scrambled to catch up, team leader Richard Mortensen devised a new plan of arrest. Agents believed the Trailblazer had only two occupants, though they later acknowledged they couldn’t see through the vehicle’s dark tinted windows. They were convinced the occupants knew they were being followed. In statements to police, the HSI agents said the suspect vehicle had made erratic lane changes indicative of “counter surveillance” measures and a brief stop in a parking lot, during which they thought they saw a silhouette turn to look at them. Inside the Trailblazer, tensions were rising. Jose said he awoke to Medina Thomas and Valenzuela talking about a truck that was following them. Medina Thomas told Jose she thought it was “a narc.” A groggy Jose told Phoenix police that he looked at the unmarked truck and replied, “Nah, that’s not a cop. You would know if it’s a cop.” If anything, Jose initially thought, it might be a rival smuggler. He told police it’s common for other smugglers to steal migrants as they were being transported and keep the payoff for themselves. It had happened to him before, with people who had lights on their car, he said. Jose told the women not to worry and went back to sleep. Meanwhile, Mortensen instructed his fellow agents to prepare for a “pinch” maneuver. The three F-150s would speed up to surround the Trailblazer, then force it to slow down and ultimately stop. Agents twice tried but failed to execute the maneuver as the Trailblazer and pickups headed north on busy 48th Street, getting blocked first by another vehicle and then by a construction zone. Finally, Mortensen decided, “there’s not a lot of civilian vehicles around, let’s conduct the pinch while moving,” an HSI agent later told police.
Warren Jose. Photo: Arizona Department of Corrections
More from the Howard Center: Homeland Security Investigations agent shootings raise accountability questions
Bryan Altieri, who was a passenger in Mortensen’s truck, described being the last Special Response Team member to reach the shooting scene. He’d struggled to get out of the crashed truck because his door was partly blocked by the downed tree. But once out, he said, he grabbed his M4 rifle and ran toward the shooting. “There was lots, a lot of gunfire going on at that point,” Altieri told police in an interview five days later. “The vehicle was extremely, extremely difficult to see inside. The windshield was significantly shot up. … It was very hard to pick up anything inside the vehicle.” Altieri said the Trailblazer’s doors were closed and that bullets appeared to be coming from inside, closer to the passenger’s side of the windshield. Looking through the optic of his rifle, Altieri thought he saw “the right arm of the driver extended out at an angle towards the passenger side windshield.” He fired two to three rounds at the driver, he said. “I’d also like to note that at this point I actually thought the driver was still Jose, that I thought he was the driver of the vehicle the entire time,” Altieri said. More than 100 rounds were fired in just over 30 seconds, about 80% of them from agents’ guns, the police investigation found. Inside the Trailblazer, Medina Thomas slumped dead in the driver’s seat from three bullets to the head and four to her neck and shoulder, the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner said. Jose, in the front passenger seat, was gravely wounded by several bullets, including one to his head. The backseat occupants – Valenzuela and the two migrants – huddled on the floorboard, wounded or injured to varying degrees. When agents realized there were others in the vehicle, they ordered them to get out and move to the neighborhood sidewalk, where signs warned of golf cart crossings. In her interview with police just a few hours after the shooting, a distraught Valenzuela recalled that when shots rang out. “I looked at Theresa, and she was gone.” One of the paramedics examining Medina Thomas’ body noted she had been shot through the eye, adding, “That’s a kill shot.” Another paramedic muttered “savage.” Curious residents ventured out for a look after the gunfire subsided and police sirens started sounding through the neighborhood. By that point, HSI agents had pulled Jose’s limp body from the Trailblazer and rolled him onto the street, face up. An AK-47 was on the ground nearby, police body cam video showed. “The scene looked like chaos because there was a body laying in the street,” said Nick Dalton, who lives with his mother a few blocks from the scene. Dalton said he thought Jose was dead because at first no one was tending to him while HSI agents were being loaded into ambulances and driven away. A cluster of Phoenix first responder vehicles sat in the center of the normally well-traveled, five-lane street, surrounded by bullet casings and broken glass, the bullet-riddled Trailblazer bumper-to-bumper with a gray unmarked HSI truck. Black tire marks streaked the nearby trail, often busy with bicyclists and neighbors walking their dogs. The front end of the agent’s truck lay halfway in a backyard, surrounded by tree limbs and other debris. Several residents found bullets in their yards, on their roofs and even lodged in the side of one home. Many were rattled by the shooting and unwilling to speak about it, even months later. “Why would they do it here?” asked Dalton, who was especially troubled by the fact that he didn’t hear sirens before the shootout. “I would assume that they would try and do it somewhere a little bit safer.” Dalton said he’d never heard of HSI until after the shooting, when he Googled it. If someone in an unmarked vehicle had tried to pull him over, saying they were with HSI, he said, “I would tell them no, get the Phoenix police.” Dalton spoke from experience, having been arrested for driving under the influence. He added that it was “kind of scary” that relatively unknown federal agencies “have the right and the power to enforce the law with physical and lethal force.”
The ShootoutFour days after being shot in the head by HSI agents, Warren Jose sat in a Phoenix police interrogation room, in hospital gown and handcuffs, sinking forward with each ragged breath as he struggled to explain what had happened that day. “Warren, why did you fire at them?” Detective Matthew Hamas asked. “When I heard the gunshots,” Jose said, “I may have, I may have just shot back.” Investigators later determined Jose had fired 24 rounds from a sawed-off AK-47. “Let me explain something to you,” Hamas pressed on. “There were a bunch of witnesses and everybody saw you fire first. So I’m trying to understand why.” “If anything, I had to be scared,” Jose offered, saying he had been sleeping in the passenger’s seat when he awoke to the sounds of screaming, the SUV crashing and spinning, followed by gunfire. “You don’t remember who fired first?” Hamas asked later, according to the videotaped interview, a copy of which was obtained by the Howard Center. “I don’t remember who fired first,” Jose replied.
Understanding who shot first was a main goal of the Phoenix Police Department’s investigation into the April 11 shooting, based on the questions asked of suspects and witnesses. HSI, in a federal criminal complaint filed the day after the shooting, said Jose “began opening fire on agents with an AK47-type assault rifle, striking multiple vehicles. Agents returned fire.” But, despite a monthslong investigation, local police and prosecutors did not determine who shot first. Agents told Phoenix police that they feared for their lives because the Trailblazer had been used as a “weapon” to ram one of their trucks, sending it careening through a cement block wall. However, during the agents’ interviews with police five days later – with their lawyers present – none explicitly said Jose was the first to fire. And police didn’t ask. Richard Mortensen, the HSI Special Response Team leader, said he got out of his truck immediately after it crashed through the wall. He said he heard gunfire coming from where an HSI truck crashed head-on into the Trailblazer and ran toward the area. Agent Marcus Camacho, whose truck rammed the SUV, said he could not see inside the vehicle, but “as soon as we collide I start taking rounds.” “I popped my door open, and I’m receiving rounds. Through the door and all around me, and I can see them exiting the SUV’s front windshield,” he said.
A crime-scene photo shows the blood-soaked driver’s seat of Warren Jose’s bullet-riddled Chevrolet Trailblazer, which was driven by Theresa Medina Thomas, who was shot to death by agents with Homeland Security Investigations on the morning of April 11, 2019. Crime scene photo: Phoenix Police Department
A crime-scene photo shows the bullet-riddled windshield of suspect Warren Jose’s Chevrolet Trailblazer. Police investigators said that Jose fired an assault rifle through the windshield from the front passenger’s seat. Crime scene photo: Phoenix Police Department
Howard Center for Investigative Journalism: Homeland Security Investigations agents involved in shootings nationwide
Agent Jeff Hemphill, who pulled up alongside Camacho, said gunshots went through his windshield as he was stepping out of his truck. Agent Bryan Altieri, who was injured in the crash of Mortensen’s truck, told police he heard gunshots as his partner exited the truck. “Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,” he said. “And I hear someone yell ‘Shots fired.’” According to police interview transcripts, none of the other witnesses to the shooting could say with certainty who shot first. Valenzuela, the friend of the slain driver, was interviewed just eight hours after the shooting. When Detective Hamas asked her who shot first, she said she “just assumed” it was Jose. But when pressed on whether she first heard shots from inside or outside the SUV, Valenzuela broke down. “It didn’t seem real, I didn’t know,” Valenzuela said, barely audible through her sobs. “I looked at Theresa, and she was gone.” Valenzuela said she threw herself over the 17-year-old migrant sitting next to her in the backseat. That girl, Maria Martinez-Luna, told police she didn’t see how the shooting started. She was interviewed by Hamas, with HSI agent Angel Hernandez translating to and from Spanish. “At any time did you see that he (Jose) grabbed the gun and began to use it?” Hernandez asked. “No,” Martinez-Luna responded. Hernandez translated her response as “She doesn’t know.” “When did he start firing?” Hernandez asked. “When the gunfire started, and then I ducked,” the girl responded. Phoenix police did not interview the other migrant in the Trailblazer, Genaro Jiménez-Sánchez, even though federal prosecutors detained him as a “material witness” in their case against Jose. In a court filing, Jose’s lawyer said Jiménez-Sánchez ducked down after the collision with the HSI truck and “heard but did not see gunshots.” Although Phoenix police released their investigative report and most of the evidence collected, police officials would not answer questions. They deferred all questions to HSI, which declined to speak with reporters or take written questions. Among the crime-scene evidence released by police was a recording from a home security system half a mile from the shooting scene that captured the sounds of the vehicle chase, crash and gunfight. The Howard Center asked two nationally renowned audio forensics and ballistics experts to review the recording. Both said a handgun, as carried by the agents, and not an AK-47 rifle was the first to fire. “With a high degree of scientific certainty, the first shot fired was a Sig Sauer .40 caliber shot,” said Steven Beck, an audio forensics and acoustics expert who worked as an FBI scientific consultant for 16 years. “That very first gun shot … it’s very prominent,” said Beck, who compared information from the recording with details of the scene included in the police incident report and crime scene photos. Using a specialized software package built for analyzing audio, he was able to look at each gunshot’s sound waveform to determine the differences between them. “It’s quite loud and had all the characteristics that were consistent with the Sig Sauer,” Beck said. Mortensen was the only one involved in the shootout who carried a Sig Sauer, according to the police report.
The FalloutTheresa Medina Thomas’ body sat in the Trailblazer in the middle of the street, blocked off by yellow caution tape and police vehicles, for nearly 12 hours before it was transported to the medical examiner’s office. Only later, after an autopsy and toxicology report, was it revealed that she had near-fatal levels of methamphetamine in her body, which could have explained much of her driving behavior. Dr. Richard Stripp, a toxicology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who analyzed the toxicology report for the Howard Center, said the HSI agents’ description of the driver’s actions would be consistent with someone high on meth. “The effect of methamphetamine would be related to increased risk-taking behavior, more aggressive behavior, potentially erratic driving,” said Stripp, a forensic toxicologist who has consulted on numerous cases. “They may speed, they may run red lights.” High levels of stress would “magnify the effect” of any drug, Stripp added, as well as increase “the fight or flight response.”
How the Howard Center did it: Reporters reviewed records, tapes, sought expert analysis
Medina Thomas was on supervised probation for previous charges related to human smuggling, although HSI agents weren’t aware of that at the time of the shooting. Her mother, Tina Juan, said Medina Thomas “went downhill” after the death of her paternal grandmother, with whom she was very close. After the shooting, Juan said she met with federal prosecutors and was surprised to learn they were considering the death penalty for Jose in the death of her daughter, even though the bullets that killed Medina Thomas were fired by HSI agents. She gave up hopes that agents would be held accountable, she said, after prosecutors told her the shooting was justified. “What am I going to do? I mean, it’s me against them. These are federal agents; it’s federal government.” Juan now is raising her eldest child’s 12-year-old daughter. She and members of her family plan to visit the site in Ahwatukee on the first anniversary of the shooting. “They took a big part of our family,” Juan said. “They took a big chunk of each of our hearts. We will never be the same. Our family is broken.”
This article was produced by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, an initiative of the Scripps Howard Foundation in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer Roy W. Howard. It is published under a Creative Commons license. Reporters Joel Farias Godinez, Maia Ordoñez and Alexandra Edelmann contributed to this report. For more on this story, see cronkitenews.azpbs.org/homeland-secrets
Join the Conversation