Tucson federal judge convicts 4 border-aid volunteers

  • Jan 18, 2019 Updated 15 min ago

Mia Reback, with Rising Tide North America from Portland, Ore., speaks during a No More Deaths press conference and rally outside U.S. District Court as trial began on Tuesday for four people accised of leaving water and food in a national wildlife refuge.
Ron Medvescek / Arizona Daily Star

Four volunteers with a border-aid group were found guilty Friday in Tucson's federal court of charges related to leaving food and water on a wildlife refuge.

The volunteers with Tucson-based No More Deaths left one-gallon jugs of water and cans of beans on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in August 2017. At a trial this week in U.S. District Court in Tucson, federal prosecutors said the volunteers committed crimes by not obtaining a permit and driving on unauthorized roads. When the volunteers left the food and water on the refuge, they effectively abandoned property there in violation of refuge rules.

Natalie Hoffman was convicted of operating a motor vehicle in a wilderness area, according to an order from Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco on Friday. Hoffman and Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco McCormick were convicted of entering a national wildlife refuge without a permit and abandoning property there. All of the charges were misdemeanors.

Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco found them guilty Friday of all charges. They face up to six months in federal prison. A sentencing date has not been set.

The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is a desolate area that stretches north from the U.S.-Mexico border where 43 sets of human remains have been recovered since the start of 2017, according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.

In their defense, the volunteers argued they were exercising sincerely-held religious beliefs to help those in need. Velasco noted in his verdict that the volunteers said they were "acting in accordance with a higher law," as well as one volunteer saying her conduct was "civil initiative."

"I believe that everybody who walks on the earth should be able to drink some water," Orozco McCormick, 21, testified Thursday.

While living in Seattle, she learned about No More Deaths online and described their efforts as "a cause that I found was very just and very necessary." She saw the need to help by "giving the dead the respect they deserve."

The volunteers also said the reason they did not obtain a permit, as volunteers had done in the past, was because a recent change in permit rules prohibited leaving food and water. Rather than sign a permit they had no intention of adhering to, they decided not to obtain a permit.

Velasco noted the refuge is "littered with unexploded military ordinance, the detritus of illegal entry into the United States, and the on-road and off-road vehicular traffic of the U.S. Border Patrol efforts to apprehend illegal entrants/undocumented immigrants," he wrote in his verdict Friday.

"None of the above obtain access permits from the Department of the Interior," Velasco wrote. "There is, however, a federal law that requires people who access Cabeza Prieta to obtain a permit authorizing entry."

"The permit requires the applicant to remain on designated roads, not travel on restricted roads, and not leave anything within the Refuge," Velasco wrote. "In short: with authorized permits, pack it in/pack it out."

The four volunteers argued that changes to the permit rules, along with Fish and Wildlife records showing No More Deaths volunteers were the only people criminally charged on the wildlife refuge in recent years, showed they were singled out by Fish and Wildlife officers and the U.S. Attorney's Office.

They also pointed to statements made by an assistant U.S. attorney at a meeting with No More Deaths saying his office was not interested in prosecuting volunteers for leaving food and water.

Each of the four defendants "made a decision to act without knowing her conduct could be punishable by up to six months incarceration," Velasco wrote in his verdict Friday. "Each one acted on the mistaken belief that the worst that could happen was that they could be banned, debarred (meaning unknown to the Defendants) or fined."

"No one in charge of No More Deaths ever informed them that their conduct could be prosecuted as a criminal offense nor did any of the Defendants make any independent inquiry into the legality or consequences of their activities," Velasco wrote.

"The Court can only speculate as to what the Defendants' decisions would have been had they known the actual risk of their undertaking," Velasco wrote.

Five other No More Deaths volunteers face misdemeanor charges related to providing humanitarian aid on the Cabeza Prieta refuge. Their trials are scheduled to start in the next few months.

Caitlin Deighan is accused of driving in a wilderness area in July 2017. She and Zoe Anderson, Logan Hollarsmith, and Rebecca Grossman-Richeimer are accused of entering a national wildlife refuge without a permit.

Scott Warren is accused of driving in a wilderness area in June 2017 and abandoning property there.

Warren also faces a felony human-smuggling charge after Border Patrol agents said he was harboring two illegal border crossers at an aid station in Ajo in January 2018.