McALLEN, Texas – Texas state police said Friday they have asked for a federal investigation of a chase in which a trooper fired on a fleeing pickup truck from a helicopter, resulting in the deaths of two Guatemalan immigrants who were hiding in the bed.
The Texas Department of Public Safety has said troopers believed drugs were hidden under a sheet in the truck's bed when the shots were fired during the pursuit. Instead, there were nine Guatemalans in the truck, including six under the sheet, and a 14-year-old driver.
DPS director Steve McCraw said in a statement Friday that he had asked the FBI and U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to investigate the incident. The Texas Rangers, an elite unit within DPS, had led the investigation of the shooting. McCraw said they will turn over their completed investigation and evidence to federal authorities.
The FBI did not immediately return a call for comment Friday.
The announcement came shortly after Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, chairman of a committee with oversight over DPS, said he had considered the issue closely and, after speaking with McCraw, saw no need for a hearing or review of DPS policy.
"I can't find any place or anywhere protocol wasn't followed," said Miller, chairman of the state Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. "Looks like everything was done according to DPS policy. It's unfortunate some people died, but I guess the lesson is: don't be running from the law. So there will be no hearing."
The American Civil Liberties Union and local civil rights groups had called Thursday for an independent investigation from outside DPS.
Friday's announcement was welcomed by the Guatemalan government, which had questioned whether the trooper could have seen people in the truck before firing. Alba Caceres, Guatemala's consul in McAllen, said she didn't want to diminish the Texas Rangers' work, but she took McCraw's announcement as a good sign.
"For us, this signifies that the things are on the right track and that the United States government has the will to resolve the problem," she said.
The chase started Oct. 25 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 wardens requested help, and the DPS helicopter joined midway in the 14-mile, high-speed pursuit of what authorities said they believed was a "typical covered drug load."
A trooper fired from the helicopter to disable the vehicle, and it crashed into a ditch. Two illegal immigrants died, and a third was injured.
The total number of people in the truck is in dispute. DPS has said that its investigation showed 10 occupants, including the nine immigrants and the 14-year-old driver. But Caceres has said interviews with surviving immigrants, including three who traveled in the rear compartment of the cab, indicate there was a man in the front passenger seat in addition to the driver. That means, in addition to the teen driver who was detained hours after the incident but later released to a grandmother and is now considered a fugitive, there is another missing person.
The trooper who fired, Miguel Avila, had completed 34 hours of aircraft operations training since October 2011, according to records released Friday by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education. He also finished eight hours of tactical firearms training in May.
The Texas Department of Public Safety said Thursday that Avila had returned to work but been assigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of the Rangers' investigation. He was initially placed on leave.
DPS regulations allow troopers to use force when defending themselves or someone else from serious harm or death. Shooting at vehicles is justified to disable a vehicle or when deadly force is deemed necessary.
Pursuits along the border are a daily occurrence involving a variety of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. The fleeing vehicles are usually carrying either drugs or illegal immigrants.