LA JOYA, Texas – The Texas trooper who fired on a fleeing pickup truck from a helicopter near the U.S.-Mexico border, killing two illegal immigrants who were hiding in the bed, has returned to work but been reassigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of an investigation, the state Department of Public Safety said Thursday.
The announcement came less than an hour after the American Civil Liberties Union and local civil rights organizations gathered near the site of the Oct. 25 shooting to demand an investigation by an independent body outside the agency. Currently, the Texas Rangers, an elite force within DPS, is leading the investigation.
DPS identified the trooper involved as tactical flight officer Miguel Avila. He was placed on administrative leave immediately following the incident but has since returned to administrative work.
The Oct. 25 chase started after Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens spotted the red pickup near La Joya, near the U.S.-Mexico border about 250 miles south of San Antonio. The DPS helicopter joined the high-speed pursuit of what it believed was a "typical covered drug load," and Avila fired from the air to disable the vehicle.
The truck crashed into a ditch. Six illegal immigrants from Guatemala, not drugs, were hidden under a blanket in the bed. Two died, and a third was injured. In total, there had been 11 people in the truck.
The agency's statement Thursday reiterated earlier comments that troopers believed they were pursuing a covered a drug load when shots were fired. They believed the driver's recklessness was a threat to the public and to elementary and middle schools less than three miles away.
"Although it is very tragic that two lives were lost, had the vehicle continued recklessly speeding through the school zone, any number of innocent bystanders or young lives could have been lost or suffered serious bodily injury," DPS director Steve McCraw said.
However, a map of the chase route provided by DPS showed four law enforcement vehicles between where the truck was shot and the schools.
In a letter delivered to McCraw on Thursday, the ACLU suggested the use of deadly force was "illegal and unconstitutional" and asked for an investigation by an agency not tied to DPS.
Several probes seem possible. Guatemala's consul in Texas has expressed skepticism that the troopers wouldn't have been able to see people in the truck and asked for an investigation. Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra announced Wednesday after meeting with Texas Rangers that the case would be taken to a grand jury.
Two Texas legislators who sit on a House committee with oversight over DPS have asked its chairman to immediately convene a hearing on the matter. Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, and Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, said they want the committee to review the trooper's conduct and the agency's policy on firing at moving vehicles.
"The fact of the matter is neither human trafficking nor drug trafficking deserves the death penalty without a trial," Burnam said. "The two people who were killed are guilty of a misdemeanor."