The top official of the U.S. Border Patrol has told his staff that the November death of an agent in West Texas was the result of an accidental fall, not an attack, according to a memo that refutes the version of the incident advanced by President Donald Trump to renew his calls for a border wall.
Border Patrol Agent Rogelio Martinez, 36, was found with grave head trauma at the bottom of a roadside culvert along a desolate span of Interstate 10 on Nov. 18. His badly injured colleague Stephen Garland was lying in the dust nearby.
Initially, the cause of the agents’ injuries was unclear, but Border Patrol union officials quickly claimed that they were victims of a savage attack. Trump said on Twitter soon after that Martinez had been “killed” and his assailants would be brought “to justice.”
More than two months into its investigation, the FBI said Wednesday it found no signs the agents were assaulted, and Kevin McAleenan, the acting commissioner of the Border Patrol, told his staff this week that the men fell into a 9-foot-deep culvert on a pitch-black night.
Garland “fell approximately 22 feet away from where Agent Martinez fell, landing on his back and sustaining significant injuries to his back and skull,” McAleenan wrote in his staff memo, a copy of which was obtained Thursday by The Washington Post.
Garland survived the fall but has told investigators he has no memory of what happened and has not spoken publicly about the incident. An autopsy released Tuesday listed the cause of Martinez’s death as “undetermined.”
McAleenan sent his memo to Border Patrol staff just hours after the FBI said it conducted 650 interviews and location searches in an exhaustive investigation involving the participation of 37 field offices. Investigators said they have turned up no evidence “of a scuffle, altercation, or attack.”
“We do not know all the answers at this time,” McAleenan wrote in the memo. “The FBI continues to investigate and will continue to follow leads as they arise.”
Border Patrol records show that the agency’s officers are at far greater risk of dying in accidents than assaults. Of the 19 agents who have died on duty since 2010, at least 10 died in accidents. One was killed by an alleged smuggler.
Martinez’s death was quickly politicized after Border Patrol union officials described a horrific crime scene in the culvert that pointed to a vicious beating.
“We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible,” Trump tweeted. “We will, and must, build the Wall!”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and others issued similar statements, alleging that the agents had been “attacked.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who promised Martinez’s mother that his attackers would be held accountable, acknowledged Thursday that the death now appears to have been an accident, according to the Texas Tribune.
“Maybe it’s a cautionary tale that all of us need to take a deep breath when things like this happen and realize that we don’t have all the information and wait until we get a little more information before reaching conclusions,” Cornyn said.
The FBI has not publicly stated that the agents fell, but McAleenan’s memo is consistent with working theories of what happened, according to investigators.
After Garland radioed for help, he told a dispatcher “we ran into a culvert,” “I ran into a culvert” or “I think I ran into a culvert.” Both agents were found with severe head injuries, and Martinez had a skull fracture, broken jaw and trauma to the upper right side of his torso, consistent with a fall.
“There were no defensive wounds on Agent Martinez or his partner,” McAleenan wrote in his memo. “There was no third-party blood or DNA evidence recovered from the scene or the agents’ clothing.”
The FBI has searched cellphone records and data from license-plate readers, and forensic experts examined the culvert and found no signs of “unidentified traffic,” McAleenan added, in details not yet made public.
To understand the extent of Garland’s amnesia, investigators have also interviewed neurologists who consult with the National Football League and the Defense Department. Garland may never recall what happened that night, they said.
Despite investigators’ latest findings, union leader Brandon Judd told Fox News on Thursday that he still believes the agents were ambushed.
Judd, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, said an attack from behind would explain why investigators found no evidence of a struggle. He said agents looking for tracks on a moonless night would be vulnerable.
“When we have the flashlight on and our heads down looking at the ground, we have a very limited view of what’s going on in our peripheral,” Judd said. “It would be very easy for somebody to hide, and as we walk by, to strike us in the head.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Nick Miroff, Robert Moore