Night Of The Hunter

A Border Vigilante Sniffs Out Reward Money, But Risks Getting A Noseful Of Bullets.

A NEW BORDER vigilante legend is born. For his own protection we will call him Ozzie, because, for reasons that will become apparent, he is media-shy.

But when it comes to roughing off smugglers, Ozzie is anything but demure. In one haul, Ozzie, who lives in the Palominas area near the San Pedro River, was able to snag 255.9 pounds of marijuana with a street value of $255,900, according to a July 4 report prepared by Cochise County Deputy D. Romero.

During that incident, deputies responded to a call regarding a man chasing undocumented aliens with a shotgun. It was, of course, Ozzie.

When the officers rolled up to Ozzie, who was waving to get their attention, the deputies noticed "large bundles of what appeared to be marijuana inside burlap bags on the ground."

Ozzie said he was staying at his brother's place when his dog began to bark. Ozzie grabbed his gun and went outside to investigate. Ozzie said he saw approximately eight Hispanic males on the property, two of whom were on bicycles.

When the men saw Ozzie they dropped their bundles and began running. Ozzie told the deputies that one of the men turned back and said, "You know we're going to kill you for this."

Ozzie's neighbors, who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, said since the July 4 incident Ozzie has taken down a three-truck drug caravan passing through his property. One truck loaded with marijuana was apparently confiscated. Another crashed attempting to get away. The third truck escaped back into Mexico. The sheriff's department seems not to have been involved in this incident; neighbors told the Weekly the responding agency may have been the U.S. Customs Service.

Cochise County Sheriff's spokesman Carol Capus told the Weekly that Ozzie had apparently contacted the Customs office hoping to get a reward for his efforts. But Texas-based Customs spokesman Roger Maier told the Weekly his agency's policy is to not release information regarding informants.

Maier did confirm that his agency has an active reward program in place for enterprising informers. The program, 1-800-BEALERT, pays up to $2,500 for information leading to law enforcement activity, and up to $250,000 to people who are documented informants--people who may lose their anonymity and have to testify in court.

Whatever Ozzie's motivation may be, the latest incident involving him occurred on October 20, on or close to Ozzie's Palominas spread.

According to a sheriff's report, Ozzie had noticed two apparently Hispanic males in the area who looked as though they were scouting the terrain.

Later in the evening, about 10 p.m., Ozzie and a friend we'll call Buzz were driving on the south end of Rough Rider Road in the Palominas area when they saw two vehicles. Ozzie told deputies he used a spotlight inside his car to illuminate the two vehicles. Ozzie and Buzz heard several pops they believed to be gunshots. The two men turned off the spotlight and watched the vehicles disappear. A short time later they heard several more shots to the south and proceeded like General Custer toward the sound of gunfire. Unlike Custer, our two heroes were now on foot.

Unbeknownst to Ozzie and Buzz, the gunshots to the south were from a shootout between drug smugglers and the Special Response Team, a Naco-assigned detachment of specially-trained Border Patrol agents.

The Border Patrol tried to keep quiet about this melee, but agents close to the event leaked to the Weekly an internal report describing what happened after Ozzie and Buzz lost sight of the vehicle they had illuminated. Some details of formatting and style have been changed to improve readability:

"The headlights of the lead [smuggler] vehicle illuminated two of the SRT [Special Response Team] agents, who were on foot. As the second vehicle approached the location shots were fired at the agents, prompting the agents to return fire.

"Backup agents arrived on scene and began walking south on the trail. A vehicle driving through the boundary fence illuminated the agents and attempted to run them over. The agents returned fire but the vehicle continued west and eventually south into Mexico.

"The Agents requested air support from the U.S. Customs Service, who dispatched a helicopter to the scene. The helicopter searched the area and identified the vehicle abandoned in Mexico near the area where the last vehicle had driven south.

"The helicopter crew also observed two additional vehicles one mile south of the border near where the other vehicles had gone.

"The Mexican Liaison Officer in Douglas was notified as well as the Mexican police and military. Military personnel reached the area and located a black Ford F-150 with Arizona plates. They also found blood on the front seat and bullet holes. The FBI duty officer was also notified of the incident.

"The Mexican Liaison Officer contacted hospitals in Naco and Cananea, Sonora, Mexico that stated they had admitted a man with a bullet wound in his back."

The Border Patrol is not happy that this news has gotten out. Border Patrol spokesman Rob Daniels indicated the leaked document is "just an initial report. One or more reports will follow."

Daniels refused to comment on the melee since "the incident is being investigated by the FBI." Yet silence is not the rule on other cases under FBI investigation, and the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol has never been media-shy before.

One touchy topic for the Border Patrol may be the nature of the Special Response Team's mission in that area. Patrol sources told the Weekly that the team was operating close to the Mexican border along several miles of heavily traveled trails and newly blazed smuggler roads near Palominas. The purpose was not to arrest illegal entrants, but to turn them right back across the international line without having to process them through their countries' consulates, which would leave a trail of paperwork.

Shooing illegal entrants across the border at the point of contact will not show up in the Sector's entry and arrest statistics. In other words, the Sector would be able to show that the Immigration and Naturalization Service's strategy is working--fewer folks come across the border, evidenced by fewer arrests.

The Border Patrol's Tucson Sector chief, David Aguilar, vehemently denied his agents were pushing illegal entrants across the border without first processing them. "Our basic strategy hasn't changed since 1995," Aguilar explained. "We have a deterrence-based strategy, which is evolving and expanding into different modes every day. That includes new resources and personnel.

"In the Douglas area we are adding five new remote video systems, which will help us monitor activity along the border," said Aguilar. "But we continue to keep the pressure on our forward deployed areas (like the Palominas) to deter the flow (of illegal entrants) across the border."

The chief expressed concern about Ozzie-type hunters who place the community and his agents in potential danger. "I've said it before and I'll say it again: People should leave law enforcement to the law enforcement officers," insisted Aguilar.

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