[Pnews] The Unraveling of the Conspiracy Case Against No More Deaths Volunteer Scott Warren
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Aug 12 14:21:32 EDT 2019
The Unraveling of the Conspiracy Case Against No More Deaths Volunteer
Ryan Devereaux - August 10, 2019
_The federal courthouse_ in Tucson, Arizona, has always been a place
where the borderlands and the American justice system collide. Described
by its engineers as “a gateway to the desert and the mountains beyond,”
it was completed in 2000, the year that the Pima County medical
examiner’s office began tracking an explosion of deaths in that same desert.
Each afternoon, Monday through Thursday, dozens of chained migrants who
survived the journey across the border but found themselves in Border
Patrol custody are marched up from the building’s bowels for mass
hearings. They come in groups of up to 70 at a time. You hear the chains
before you see the people — men and women still wearing the clothes they
crossed in. Appearing before a judge in clusters, they confess to
entering without inspection, receive their sentences, and leave. Cases
are adjudicated in minutes.
On May 29, as the prosecutorial machine churned on, a courtroom on the
building’s fifth floor filled for a different kind of proceeding.
Marshals with radio-linked earpieces lined the back wall. District Judge
Raner Collins took his seat. Before him, a crowd of people sat shoulder
to shoulder on wooden benches. After 16 emotional months, the moment had
A young prosecutor in a baggy suit approached the microphone. The
American flag pin fixed to his lapel glinted in the light.
“This case is not about humanitarian aid,” Nathaniel J. Walters declared
in his first words to the jury. Instead, he said, it was about Scott
Warren’s decision to take part in a conspiracy to break the law and
“shield two illegal aliens from law enforcement over the course of
several days.” Warren was a “high-ranking leader of an organization
called No More Deaths,” Walters told the jurors, but “No More Deaths is
not on trial. Scott Warren is.”
For nearly a year and a half, Walters and his co-counsel, Anna Wright,
had been working to put Warren in prison. The then-35-year-old
geographer was arrested on January 17, 2018, along with two young
migrants in the unincorporated community of Ajo, where Warren lives and
works. He was accused of providing 23-year-old Kristian
Perez-Villanueva, of El Salvador, and 20-year-old José Sacaria-Goday, of
Honduras, with food, water, and a place to sleep over three days.
By the time the felony trial began, the prosecutors had already brought
federal misdemeanor charges
against Warren and eight other volunteers with No More Deaths, a
faith-based organization headquartered in Tucson, for leaving jugs of
water and other aid supplies on federal lands where migrants are known
to die. The prosecutors had won four convictions in those cases, but the
punishments were relatively light — $250 fines plus probation. The
felony case presented an opportunity to mete out real consequences: 20
years in prison if Warren was convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms.
Signs began popping up in front yards and windows across Tucson in the
months leading up to the trial. Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime/,/
they read, Drop the Charges/./ Immigrant rights advocates were watching
closely. If the prosecution succeeded, they worried, it could set a
disastrous precedent. Not only would a conviction threaten aid work in a
region where thousands of migrants have died, but it could also
conceivably open the door to a broader criminalization of anyone
knowingly providing undocumented people with the basics of human life,
including individuals living in families with mixed immigration status.
Standing before the jury, Walters promised to tell the story of Warren’s
central role in a criminal conspiracy and to show, beyond the shadow of
doubt, that Warren chose to violate the law. As the prosecutor took his
seat, defense attorney Greg Kuykendall rose. He crossed the courtroom
and set a slide on the court projector.
“INTENT,” the slide said, in large, red letters.
“There’s one question in this case,” the defense attorney told the
jurors. “Did these government prosecutors prove with evidence beyond a
reasonable doubt that Scott Warren intended to violate the law?”
Kuykendall contended that he did not. “Scott intended one thing: to
provide basic human kindness in the form of humanitarian aid.”
“Keep your eyes on the ball,” he advised.
_In the trial_ of U.S. v. Scott Daniel Warren, 12 jurors were presented
with a set of events and told to come to a unanimous conclusion about
its meaning. They would fail
but in doing so they became a mirror, reflecting a country deeply
divided on the moral and legal questions raised by its border
enforcement strategies. As much as the prosecution and defense worked to
keep the jurors’ eyes on the ball, there was simply no denying that
virtually every element of the trial, right down to the way it ended,
felt like a referendum not just on the current political moment, but on
a multi-decade government policy of pushing migrants to the border’s
The government’s argument was not that Scott Warren had somehow strayed
inadvertently into criminal activity in an effort to do the right thing.
Far from it. Rather than some innocent do-gooder, the prosecutors
argued, Warren was an experienced and wily senior official in an
organized, nonprofit human smuggling operation that uses humanitarian
aid as a cover, and he led an illegal operation in January 2018 in
service of a broader political agenda aimed at abolishing Immigration
and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol and ushering in a
The critical events in the case boiled down to a nine-day period early
On January 14, Warren arrived at “the Barn,” a building long used by
humanitarian groups in Ajo, to find Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday
already inside the bathroom. According to their videotaped depositions,
later played for the jury, the pair spent approximately two days
crossing the desert. Both said that trauma accompanied their journeys.
Sacaria-Goday referred to the suffering of his northbound train trek,
while Perez-Villanueva described fleeing problems in El Salvador. The
young men said they had been chased by immigration agents and dropped
most of their supplies, including their food. They made it to Ajo on
foot, where they got two rides from two different drivers at two
separate gas stations. The second driver dropped them off at the Barn.
Both drivers were strangers, the migrants said.
The two young men asked Warren for food and water. He obliged and
performed medical assessments on both of them. A certified wilderness
first responder, Warren recorded their conditions in medical forms known
as SOAP notes, noting the nickel- and quarter-sized blisters on their
feet. Perez-Villanueva also had scratches — “rayones” — on his right
hand and reported cold symptoms. Sacaria-Goday complained of serious
pain in his torso, the result of falling on a rock days earlier. In
keeping with No More Deaths’ protocol, Warren called for advice from two
women who have long provided medical services for humanitarian groups in
southern Arizona: Susannah Brown, a local nurse in Ajo, and Dr. Norma
Price, an award-winning physician.
The migrants spent three days and two nights at the Barn, while Warren
and other humanitarian aid volunteers came and went. All three men were
arrested on the afternoon of January 17, as the migrants were preparing
to carry on north.
The jurors in Warren’s case were told to count one fact as stipulated:
that the Pima County medical examiner’s office had recorded
approximately 3,000 suspected migrant deaths in southern Arizona since
2000. During deliberations, they were later directed to keep in mind
that there is no legal obligation upon citizens to report suspected
undocumented immigrants — or any other suspected criminals — to law
enforcement. For at least one of the jurors, the premise of the
prosecution was a problem. Following the opening arguments, the young
woman passed a note to the judge, informing him that she could not
participate in an attempt to convict Warren for the events that had been
The next morning, she was gone.
_With the exception_ of the two migrants, the government’s witnesses
were all Border Patrol agents. Two of them, John Marquez and Brendan
Burns, were members of the plainclothes “Disrupt Unit” that took Warren
into custody. Both testified in pretrial hearings in the case,
describing Disrupt as a specialized unit focused on bringing in
smuggling cases linked to organized criminal networks. Marquez had taken
a particular interest in Warren in the days leading up to his arrest,
text messages showed
and the operation itself was initiated hours after No More Deaths
released a report
— accompanied with a viral video — documenting the destruction of
thousands of gallons of water in the desert and implicating the Border
Patrol in the vandalism.
The prosecution leaned hard on selfies and security camera footage of
the migrants at two Ajo gas stations as evidence that they were not in
need of aid. At Wright’s direction, Burns narrated their actions inside
one of the stores, describing the migrants stretching, charging their
phones, sharing a Powerade, and laughing with a cashier. The prosecutor
then displayed a still image. Shot from overhead, it showed two smiling
young men in white undershirts inside a building: Perez-Villanueva and
Sacaria-Goday in the Barn. Behind them, a trio of No More Deaths
volunteers waved and flashed peace signs for the camera.
“Looking at Mr. Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday, from what you can
see, do either of them have any bruises, cuts, marks on them?” Wright asked.
“No, ma’am,” the Border Patrol agent replied.
Another image showed Perez-Villanueva alone, taking a selfie. A
third showed the Central Americans smiling as they cooked a meal in the
Barn’s kitchen. In each instance, the prosecutor asked if Burns saw
signs of injury. He did not.
By the time the jurors heard from Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday
themselves, in the form of roughly three hours of videotaped deposition
testimony, their street clothes and smiles were gone, replaced by
detention center jumpsuits.
By the time the jurors heard from Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday
themselves, their street clothes and smiles were gone, replaced by
detention center jumpsuits.
They described how, by the time they reached the outskirts of Ajo, they
were hungry, thirsty, and their feet hurt. Sacaria-Goday said he lied to
Border Patrol agents at various points during his initial arrest
interview because he was angry. Perez-Villanueva testified that the
person who drove them to the Barn told them to keep quiet about his role
and that they honored his request when Warren showed up. Both said
Warren was “hardly” present during their stay, that they barely spoke
with him, and that he never gave them directions north. They said they
were free to come and go as they pleased.
The government then laid out its theory of a criminal conspiracy.
In his opening statement, Walters confirmed that a man named Irineo
Mujica was Warren’s alleged co-conspirator. Mujica operates a migrant
shelter in the Mexican border town of Sonoyta, just south of Ajo. He is
better known, however, for his role leading Pueblo Sin Fronteras, an
immigration rights group that organized and supported some of the
migrant caravans that led President Donald Trump to declare a national
emergency and deploy thousands of troops to the border last year. In
February, The Intercept revealed
that Mujica and Pueblo Sin Fronteras were targets in a sprawling
intelligence-gathering operation that swept up a number of activists,
journalists, and immigration attorneys working with caravan members in
the San Diego, Tijuana, area in late 2018 and early 2019.
These data points together raised a host of questions about what might
be revealed in Warren’s trial. On its final day of arguments, the
prosecution called Border Patrol agent Rogelio Velasco to the stand. A
member of the Tucson sector’s intelligence unit, Velasco examined two
key phones in the case: Perez-Villanueva’s and Warren’s.
According to the Border Patrol agent, those records showed that
Perez-Villanueva texted Mujica the words “we’re here” after making it to
Ajo, and that Mujica replied, “I’m on my way.” The records also showed
that Warren had communicated with Mujica in June 2017, December 24,
2017, and on January 11, 2018, six days before his arrest. His phone
records further revealed communications with Susannah Brown and Norma
Price, the nurse and the doctor, respectively, whom he had called after
the migrants arrived at the Barn.
On cross-examination, Kuykendall asked Velasco about his process for
narrowing down 14,000 pages of records extracted from Warren’s phone
into a one-page report.
“Just by talking to the U.S. attorneys,” the Border Patrol agent
testified, explaining that Walters and Wright gave him the criteria and
date ranges to search for — none of which revealed communications
between Warren and Perez-Villanueva, he acknowledged.
Kuykendall asked Velasco if he was aware that Mujica and Warren were
involved in humanitarian aid efforts, and that Mujica operates a shelter
“I think I might’ve heard something, but I’m not exactly sure,” Velasco
Kuykendall turned to the January 11 communications between Mujica and
Warren, asking the Border Patrol agent if he had seen what Warren
Googled after they got off the phone.
As it turned out, Warren’s phone showed that he had looked up
backcountry regulations for federal lands south of Ajo and a recent
documentary showing a humanitarian group finding human remains in that
area. Velasco was unaware. The agent similarly didn’t know that, after
the migrants arrived in Ajo, Warren Googled a Spanish word for scratches
— “rayones” — before calling Price for medical advice. Nor did Velasco
seem familiar with the fact that Perez-Villanueva had worked for Mujica
while staying at his shelter, offering a possible explanation for their
communications and relationship.
Kuykendall then introduced a June 2017 email between Warren and Mujica
and asked if Velasco had come across it in the searches the prosecutors
directed him to make. He had not. Kuykendall introduced another email,
asked the same question, and received the same answer. The process
repeated itself until roughly a dozen emails were introduced. About
halfway through, Velasco turned his gaze to the prosecutors, a puzzled
expression on his face.
The emails were later shown to be part of an ongoing correspondence
between Warren, Mujica, and other humanitarian volunteers, which
included Warren providing tips on how to obtain useable information
regarding where missing or dead migrants could be found.
As Velasco stepped down, the prosecution recalled agent Burns. Burns was
shown selfies Perez-Villanueva took inside a van. Based on the markings
on its windows, Burns testified that the vehicle belonged to Mujica. He
knew this, in part, because a week after Warren and the migrants were
arrested, Mujica was stopped driving the van through a Border Patrol
checkpoint outside Ajo. Inside the vehicle, Burns testified, agents
found black water jugs often carried by migrants crossing the desert and
multiple foreign ID cards belonging to individuals who had been deported.
Burns described racing to the scene as the stop was happening and
finding Mujica still there when he arrived. But when Kuykendall asked
the obvious question — whether Burns interrogated Mujica about the
conspiracy he allegedly facilitated with Warren, a man he had arrested
the previous week — the Border Patrol agent testified that he did not.
Instead, Burns said, Warren’s alleged co-conspirator was released.
_The second phase_ of the prosecution’s theory of conspiracy was
unveiled on day four, when the defense called Brown to the stand. “Scott
told me that there were two young men in need of medical care at the
Barn,” Brown testified, referring to a phone conversation she had with
Warren soon after the migrants’ arrival. The 67-year-old nurse,
currently licensed in Arizona, headed to the Barn the next morning.
Brown described inspecting the two young men and confirming the injuries
Warren had noted. She had estimated that they might need anywhere from
three to five days to recover.
Brown told the jury that it was not uncommon for her and Warren to take
volunteers to Mujica’s shelter, though she didn’t specifically recall a
trip they had made the weekend ahead of Warren’s arrest. Typically,
Brown said, she would drive a pickup truck hauling an enormous tank of
potable water. Volunteers would pass out “harm reduction kits,” packets
that include chlorine for purifying water, ointment for treating
blisters, combs for removing cactus spines, and a list of American
emergency phone numbers, including 911. Brown would then spend the rest
of her day treating migrants by the dozens.
Warren’s trial was not normal.
When Walters had his shot at the nurse, on cross-examination, he zeroed
in on these visits to Mexico and what they might really be about. He
asked Brown if she had ever met the migrants Warren was arrested with
before they made it to Ajo. Brown testified that she wasn’t sure.
“I see a lot of people at the clinics in Sonoyta,” she said.
The prosecutor then introduced three pieces of evidence from December
25, 2017, the same date that the Ajo Samaritans — one of the
humanitarian groups both Brown and Warren work with — went to the
Sonoyta shelter to serve Christmas dinner.
Walters first flashed an unflattering close-up of Brown’s face at the
scene. “Oh, that’s a terrible picture,” Brown responded. He then showed
a photo of Mujica at the same location. Then, finally, the assistant
U.S. attorney delivered his coup de grâce: cellphone video taken by
The shot showed a group of retirement-aged volunteers preparing a picnic
table. Brown was one of them.
Perez-Villanueva asked her name in Spanish.
“Susannah,” Brown replied. “¿Y usted?”
Normally, video of a 67-year-old white woman with U.S. citizenship
preparing Christmas dinner for migrants at a shelter would not be the
kind of evidence one would expect to see in a high-profile federal trial.
Warren’s trial was not normal.
As a matter of law enforcement prioritization, harboring cases are
historically rare (though that’s changed a bit under the Trump
administration) and are typically focused on for-profit, criminal
networks. An analysis
by the Arizona Daily Star uncovered just two cases out of 119 filed in
the U.S. District Court in Tucson in the first six months of 2018 where
the defendant was not suspected of attempting to turn a profit. Warren’s
case was one of them.
Over and over, as the defense called its witnesses to the stand,
prosecutors Walters and Wright implored the jury to understand that
these individuals were not who they said they were — they were smugglers
After Warren was arrested, the Border Patrol either forgot or failed to
secure the Barn as a crime scene. In the days that followed, volunteer
Flannery Shay-Nimrow took the SOAP notes and locations of water drops
from the Barn. Walters challenged the decision: What kind of transparent
organization removes its materials from an aid station? Shay-Nimrow
reminded the prosecutor that No More Deaths has documented the Border
Patrol destroying its water drops.
When longtime volunteer Geena Jackson told the jury that No More Deaths
models its protocols after the international Red Cross, which requires
that “humanitarian aid be separate and distinguished from law
enforcement to be effective,” Walters pounced again.
“Isn’t it true that No More Deaths has openly advocated for the
abolishment of ICE?” he asked.
Walters had taken the same line of attack in previous No More Deaths
hearings and would turn to it more than once during Warren’s felony trial.
Jackson told the prosecutor that she was unsure if that was true.
“Are you aware that No More Deaths has also called for the abolishment
for the entire Border Patrol?” Walters asked, pressing on. Given No More
Deaths’ mission to end death and suffering in the desert, Jackson
acknowledged, “the end of the agency that causes the death and suffering
would make sense, yes.”
_For a prosecution_ that was ostensibly not about humanitarian aid or No
More Deaths, the two subjects were coming up quite a bit. That remained
so when, late in the afternoon on day five, Warren stepped onto the
witness stand for the first time.
As people who know him often point out, Warren was perhaps the most
challenging person the prosecution could have chosen to make an example
of. Not only did he have the unearned advantage of being a well-educated
white man in a prosecutorial system that comes down harder on people who
are not, he also happened to be a profoundly effective speaker — and a
literal expert — on the issues core to his case.
Testifying over two days, Warren told the jurors how he came to Ajo
looking for “a quiet place to write my dissertation” and soon found
himself immersed in a generations-old community effort to confront
migrant deaths in the borderlands. His field is geography, he explained,
and his focus is on the human and cultural geography of the U.S.-Mexico
border. Warren likened Ajo to a lone population center in a “a
low-intensity conflict zone.” It’s not as though there are out-and-out
gun battles, he explained — “The border is not this scary, deadly place
that you hear about in the media.” What there is, however, is an
enormous build-up of security and surveillance infrastructure; armed
state and nonstate actors; and civilians, some of whom happen to be
migrating through one of the deadliest landscapes in the Western
hemisphere, while an army of federal agents searches for them night and day.
Warren was perhaps the most challenging person the prosecution could
have chosen to make an example of.
Knowing what he did as an academic — the push and pull and factors that
cause people to migrate, and the manner and scale at which they die in
the Sonoran Desert — left him with little alternative but to act, Warren
testified. “In one sense, it feels a little choice-less,” he said. “How
could you not do that?” Geographers research and write about places,
Warren acknowledged, but to him, making the place where you live “more
humane, more just” is also part of the job.
Crossing the desert is an “epic undertaking where you have to put
everything you’ve got on the line in order to make it,” Warren
explained; one where it is impossible to carry enough water and “there
is the expectation that you are going to witness death.” Warren told the
jury about the 19 times he has recovered human remains in the desert,
how he fixates on the loneliness that accompanies such deaths, and the
mark those encounters have left on him. When he meets people preparing
to, or already crossing, the desert, Warren said, a vision flashes
through his mind. “I see these bones,” he said. “Almost like a split
The person in the flesh, and the ones who didn’t make it.
“It’s not a stretch to say that every day, migrants are kind of coming
stumbling out of the wilderness, knocking on doors in Ajo, needing food
and water and other kinds of basic care,” Warren testified.
“People have been giving aid for generations in that town,” he
explained. “The great thing about it,” he added as his first day of
testimony wrapped up, “is humanitarian aid work is legal.”
_Court resumed the_ next morning under a darkened cloud of conspiracy.
Approximately two hours before Warren took the witness stand the
previous afternoon, Mujica was arrested in Sonoyta along with another
activist. The charges, which soon became public, were related to
illegally moving human beings across borders.
Though Mujica, who did not respond to a request for comment for this
story, was released from custody days later, the news of his arrest
reverberated in whispers through the Tucson courthouse. While day one of
Warren’s testimony focused on his beliefs, day two would address the
facts of his case. If the government planned to spring some surprise
evidence linking Warren to the newly arrested Mujica during
cross-examination, as they did with nurse Brown, this would be the day
to do it.
Returning to the witness stand, with Kuykendall asking the questions,
Warren told the jury how the first weeks of 2018 were a busy time. In
addition to teaching classes at Arizona State University, he was also
beginning a new gig at a community college for residents of the Tohono
O’odham Nation Reservation, up the road from Ajo. On top of that, he was
working as a facilitator at No More Deaths for a new monthlong volunteer
program based out of the Barn.
Describing his January 11 communications with Mujica, Warren told the
jury that Mujica had called with information about some human remains
that migrants coming through his shelter had reported spotting. The tip,
Warren testified, jogged his memory. He got off the phone and looked up
a recently published Vice News documentary that depicted a humanitarian
group, the Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate, on an operation outside Ajo in
which it reported the discovery of human remains.
“For whatever reason, the recovery was never done,” Warren said. He
wondered if the remains the Armadillos found might be the ones Mujica
was hearing about at the shelter.
Warren went on to explain that he and Mujica had “many email
conversations” about search-and-recovery work in the desert and the
coordination of volunteer visits to the shelter.
The Friday before he was taken into custody, Warren told the jury, he
and Brown took the new volunteers to the shelter. One of those
volunteers, Isabella Reis-Newsom, who served as Brown’s translator for
the day, testified that the goals of the visit were to supply clean
water, perform medical assessments, and provide information on the risks
associated with crossing the desert. She estimated that Brown treated
between 50 and 70 patients over multiple hours.
The new volunteers headed out into the field the following day, locating
the human remains the Armadillos had reported. The next morning, Warren
went to the local sheriff’s office substation to coordinate a recovery
operation, which was completed later that afternoon. It was around
sunset, Warren said, when he pulled into the Barn with a bag of
groceries to make dinner for the returning volunteers. As he approached
the building, he noticed that the bathroom door was open.
Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday were standing in the doorway.
Perez-Villanueva did most of the talking, Warren said, explaining that
they were looking for water and asking if they could help him with his
“This kind of thing happens a lot in Ajo,” Warren told the jury.
Placing the perishables in the fridge, Warren began his medical
assessments. He made his calls to Brown and Price, the doctor. Among the
new volunteers was a fluent Spanish-speaking EMT, he added, who took
over much of the medical supervision responsibilities when the group
returned to the Barn. Kuykendall asked if Warren ever instructed the
migrants to hide. Warren replied that he had not. “We can’t break the
law,” he explained. “We want to be spending our time in the desert
getting water out, getting food and water and medical care to people —
“My intention was to provide them some basic humanitarian aid,” he
testified, and to “treat them as I would any human being who showed up
on my doorstep.”
The following days saw Warren making a handful of appearances at the
Barn. He spent the day of his arrest working for home, prepping
classwork and ironing out logistics for the arrival of a group of high
school students that night. It was around 4 p.m. when he got to the
Barn, he said. There were three No More Deaths facilitators inside.
Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday were still there, though they were on
their way out. Warren took the two outside.
“I pointed out two landmarks to them,” Warren testified — Childs
Mountain and Hat Mountain. “I told them that the critical piece of
information that they need to know is that Highway 85 runs between those
This was not about giving the pair directions to find a ride or evade
the Border Patrol, Warren explained. “There’s only one paved highway in
all of this desert area,” he told the jury — it’s “the only piece of
civilization out there.” If Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday somehow
got to the left of Childs Mountain, they could stray into the Growler
Valley, a profoundly remote stretch of desert where the remains of
hundreds of migrants have been found.
If you need help, Warren told the young men, “you walk this way — you
don’t walk that way.”
_As the prosecution_ came in for cross-examination, it felt as though
Walters and Warren weren’t just on opposing sides but in alternate
“In terms of No More Deaths, you would agree that you’re a high-ranking
leader in that organization?” the prosecutor told Warren.
Warren explained that No More Deaths is more of a “flat-power
organization,” and that “experienced volunteer” would be a fair description.
Carrying on, Walters shifted attention to the day of his arrest. Despite
“his entire testimony” centering around the migrants’ well being, the
prosecutor submitted for the jury that Warren’s actions in those moments
revealed his true motives.
“You know the jig is up,” Walters said.
“The jig?” Warren asked.
“You didn’t hand over the SOAP notes,” Walters explained. These were
hardly the actions of an innocent man.
“Well,” Warren replied. “I was in handcuffs.”
Undeterred, Walters pressed on, positioning himself to score a
spectacular prosecutorial goal.
On the eve of his trial, Warren published an opinion piece
in the Washington Post laying out the facts of his case and describing
the potential precedents his conviction could set. Walters pointed to a
line Warren wrote that “someone” had told the migrants they might be
able to find help at the Barn.
“You knew that it was Irineo Mujica,” Walters said.
“No,” Warren testified, he didn’t know who dropped the migrants off.
The prosecutor then noted that Warren had described the deaths of
migrants in the borderlands as “violent.” He asked Warren to tell the
jury what he meant by “violent.” The border studies instructor, with a
Ph.D. in the human and social geography of the region, appeared more
than willing to offer his thoughts on the issue.
“When I think of violence, it’s more like systemic and institutional
violence,” Warren explained — violence within “much larger policies that
are at play.”
The mess the prosecutor made for himself became even more clear on
rebuttal, when Kuykendall started reading Warren’s op-ed from the
beginning. Walters objected but Collins overruled, directing the
defendant himself to read the text.
Reading his article slowly and carefully, Warren described the dire
humanitarian situation around Ajo and how, for years, “humanitarian
groups and local residents navigated a coexistence with the Border
Patrol.” After all, he noted, “in a town as small as Ajo, we’re all
neighbors, and everybody’s kids go to the same school.” Warren
referenced the other cases Walters and Wright had brought against No
More Deaths volunteers for leaving water in the desert and outlined the
“dangerous precedent” his case could set for mixed-status families.
“The Trump administration’s policies — warehousing asylees, separating
families, caging children — seek to impose hardship and cruelty,” he
read. “For this strategy to work, it must also stamp out kindness.”
Collins had made a daily point of telling the jurors not to research
Warren’s case, not to discuss it with anyone, to pay no mind to the fact
that this particular trial, for some reason, drew a packed audience and
a crowd of demonstrators every single day. Much of what the judge would
hope to exclude from the jurors’ minds was now trial testimony. The
president’s name was invoked, and the case was tied directly to his most
controversial immigration initiatives.
As Warren read from his piece, Walters stared straight ahead, posture
rigid as he took large gulps from a Styrofoam cup.
_The next morning,_ the line to get into the courthouse was out the
door. Wright delivered the government’s closing arguments.
On Christmas Eve, 2017, she said, Warren texted Mujica. The following
day, Brown was at Mujica’s shelter serving food. Both Mujica and
Perez-Villanueva were there. Weeks later, on January 11, Warren and
Mujica spoke by phone. The next day, Warren and Brown visited the
shelter, where they delivered No More Deaths’ harm reduction kits — or,
as Wright referred to them, “predeparture kits.” Perez-Villanueva and
Sacaria-Goday crossed the border the following night. Two days later,
they made it to Ajo, where Perez-Villanueva called Mujica and got a ride
to the Barn. Warren arrived shortly thereafter.
“That is evidence not of coincidence,” Wright told the jury. “But of
Everything Warren did in the days that followed was in furtherance of
this “well-made-off” criminal plan, Wright said, and nothing his
attorneys said could be taken seriously. Warren made two calls after the
migrants arrived, she pointed out, but the first, to the nurse, was not
included in his SOAP notes. “That call doesn’t show up in the SOAP notes
because it’s not about medical care,” Wright asserted. “That call is
letting her know that he made it and the plan worked.” The notes were
part of the cover-up, Wright said, and the migrants were never in need
of medical care. “Mujica and the defendant have an ongoing
relationship,” she explained. “That relationship involved activities
around illegal aliens. Sometimes they’re search and rescue. Sometimes
they’re this.” Warren was “the hub” in a criminal operation, she
insisted, in which, he, Mujica, Brown, and unspecified “others conspired
to further Kristian and José’s illegal journey into the United States.”
“It’s not against the law in our country to provide humanitarian aid
unless, in doing so, you intend to violate the law. There’s
absolutely no evidence that Scott intended to violate the law.”
“The question is, what’s the benefit to him of all this?” Wright asked
the jury. “He’s not getting any money out of it. That much is clear. So
what does he get?”
The answer, the prosecutor argued, was that “he gets to further the
goals of the organization,” of which he is “a high-ranking leader.” One
of the goals of that organization, Wright told the jury, “although never
stated outright, is to thwart Border Patrol at every possible turn.”
As Kuykendall replaced Wright at the microphone, the word “INTENT,” in
large, red letters, returned to the jurors’ screens.
“Like I said at the beginning of this case, there’s one issue,” he said.
Walking through the legal system’s different standards of proof, the
defense attorney stressed the high bar of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
In Warren’s case, the government had at its disposal some 500 Border
Patrol agents in Ajo and “14,000-plus pages” of Warren’s phone records.
“Everything about Scott’s life,” Kuykendall said. Not only did the
prosecutors fail to produce evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, he
argued, but there was in fact “an intentional absence of evidence.”
Kuykendall pointed to the testimony of the agent who examined Warren’s
cellphone, who was oblivious to a history of communications between
Warren and Mujica.
“They’re alleging Scott talked to Irineo about some far-flung
conspiracy, some conspiracy that doesn’t make a bit of sense, but they
intentionally told the agent, ‘Don’t look at the emails,’” Kuykendall
said. “If you’re the government of the United States, with all the power
in the world, you direct your agents to review precisely this kind of
evidence and present it to folks like you.”
And then there was the testimony of agent Burns, Kuykendall went on to
say, who had Mujica in front of him at a Border Patrol checkpoint a week
after Warren’s arrest and did not ask him about the alleged conspiracy.
“If the government wanted to produce evidence to you of a conspiracy
between Scott Warren and Irineo Mujica, what better evidence than
finding out from Mujica what they were talking about?” Kuykendall asked.
“Why didn’t they do that? That right there constitutes a gigantic,
gaping, reasonable doubt.”
“If it weren’t so scary, it would be laughable,” he added. “But it isn’t
laughable. It’s the most important day of Scott’s life.”
The defense attorney wrapped up by returning to the two stipulated facts
in the trial. “It’s not against the law in our country to provide
humanitarian aid unless, in doing so, you intend to violate the law,” he
said. “There’s absolutely no evidence that Scott intended to violate the
law. The evidence in this case is precisely the contrary.”
“Scott wanted to alleviate human suffering,” Kuykendall told the jurors.
“This isn’t a close call.”
Wright’s rebuttal lasted more than half an hour. “We’re not saying the
defendant is evil,” she said. “No, he did a bad thing and that’s what’s
charged in the indictment.” The jurors had to know, Wright argued, her
intensity building as she made her final pleas, that “this is not a case
about deaths in the desert and a crisis and all this.”
“That is a smokescreen to distract you from what happened,” she said.
Warren and his lawyers were deploying slippery language and fancy words,
the prosecutor argued. The idea that orientation is a human right — and
that’s what Warren provided the migrants as he pointed out landmarks in
the moments before their arrests — was just another “smokescreen,” she
said. “Orientation is a fancy word for giving people directions,” Wight
argued. “It is an attempt to make legitimate what is actually illegal.”
Similarly, she said, the word “context,” which Warren used in attempt to
explain his role in No More Deaths, was just “another fancy word for
The fact that Perez-Villanueva’s text messages showed that he planned to
get to Phoenix the first night he made it to the U.S. — undercutting the
idea of a plan to stay in Ajo — didn’t matter, Wright argued. “Travel
plans change,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that there’s not a plan, not
a conspiracy. It simply means that Kristian doesn’t know all the
details. And that would make sense. Who’s the experts? Who’s been doing
this awhile? Who’s been around people who’ve been crossing and have that
information? Not Kristian. It’s the other people planning.”
As she brought her case to close, Wright returned to the selfies,
encouraging the jurors to trust what they saw. “Looking with your own
eyes, you can make your own assessment,” she said. “They are not
injured. They were not sick. They were not resting and recuperating on
their sick beds. They were taking their time getting to the place that
they wanted to get to, with all the help they could possibly need from
the defendant. They got food. They got water. They got shelter. They got
directions. They had everything brought to the Barn that they could
possibly need. Everything. For four days.”
“Coincidences don’t happen like this,” the prosecutor said. “This was a
plan and under the law, a plan like this is a conspiracy.”
_As the jurors_ headed into deliberations, I headed to Warren’s
Kuykendall and his co-counsel, Amy Knight, are death penalty defense
attorneys by trade. They took on Warren’s case pro bono, as a matter of
principle. During their 16 months working on it, they had maintained a
low media profile. Though Warren’s prosecution had precedent-setting
potential, the charges he faced were low-level felonies compared to the
capital crimes Kuykendall and Knight usually litigate. The attorneys
kept up their death penalty defense posture nonetheless, hammering the
prosecution with pretrial motions in an effort to force the government
to truly prove its case — or back down.
“The Border Patrol’s not accustomed to trying cases,” Kuykendall said,
as the lawyers settled in for lunch, waiting for the jury to return its
verdict. In a system in which an agent’s investigative responsibility
often boils down to proving a person lacks papers, and a right to
attorney is not a given, “nobody goes to trial,” Kuykendall said.
“Nobody fights back.”
While Kuykendall made most of the arguments in court, Knight was in many
ways the tactician behind Warren’s defense. She had accepted early on
that she wasn’t going to find an expert witness on migrant deaths in the
Arizona desert who would not be perceived as being on Warren’s “side.”
“There’s no such person,” she said. The U.S. government has maintained a
multi-decade policy of channeling migrants into the deadliest areas of
the desert, resulting in thousands of deaths, in order to deter others
from coming. “Once you know this information, you can’t not be an advocate.”
“Their policy doesn’t work if it’s not deadly,” she added.
As Warren’s trial played out, Knight said, she was struck by the
“shocking amount of power the federal government really has.” Here were
two assistant U.S. attorneys interpreting a law in a new, and radically
more aggressive, direction and getting institutional support from the
Department of Justice to do so. Kuykendall agreed. The defense attorney
said it wouldn’t surprise him if Warren’s prosecution cost the
government upwards of $1 million. “How you could not believe that
Scott’s primary intention in life is to alleviate suffering, I don’t
understand,” he said, adding that it was an interpretation of the facts
that made him “aware of what a polarized universe we live in.”
Here were two assistant U.S. attorneys interpreting a law in a new,
and radically more aggressive, direction and getting institutional
support from the Department of Justice to do so.
“It’s like they came from Mars or something, and they have a completely
different set of receptors,” Kuykendall said.
The day ended without a verdict. The weekend came and went. The
following Monday morning, I found Susannah Brown mingling with No More
Deaths volunteers outside the courthouse. Just a few days earlier, she
had walked into the building and been blindsided by a federal prosecutor
naming her as an unindicted co-conspirator in a felony conspiracy. She
was clearly still processing. “I felt pretty good until Friday,” Brown
told me with a laugh. “And then it was like, holy shit. I couldn’t
believe what I was hearing.”
“It was like, this is preposterous, you’re crazy,” she said. The
chilling part, she added, was that Wright was skillful at crafting a
narrative that could sound compelling, “if you didn’t know what the
“That was scary,” Brown said.
Brown was one of several Ajo residents I had come to know over the last
year who saw Warren’s prosecution as a defining moment in their town’s
recent history and a test of their own principles. At a community
meeting earlier this year, I heard residents like her describe a proud
history of providing aid to migrants in Ajo, and the fear and confusion
they were feeling now. It was clear that Warren’s experience and actions
were not unusual. The federal government’s posture was at odds with
traditions that many people viewed as moral obligations. Some, like
Brown, had built their lives around the fulfillment of those obligations
and weren’t planning to change course now.
“We’re gonna carry on,” she told me. “We have to.”
_Late on the_ afternoon of June 10, a phone rang in Warren’s attorneys’
office: The court clerk was calling to say that the jury had delivered a
note to Judge Raner Collins. The lawyers piled into a car and headed for
After 11 hours and 23 minutes of deliberations, Collins told the court,
the jurors were “unable to reach consensus.” He ordered them to go back
and try again. “Each of you must decide the case for yourself,” he said.
“I’m going to ask you to retire again and continue deliberations.”
The following day, at 12:36 p.m., the phone rang again. Warren’s lawyers
hustled back to court. An hour later, the jurors filed in. They were
deadlocked. Collins asked if they all agreed that further deliberation
would not result in a resolution. On that point, there was unanimity. It
“I want to thank you for your time and your attention,” Collins told the
jurors, and with that, they were dismissed. Collins filed a formal
mistrial later that afternoon.
After their dismissal, the jurors invited Kuykendall and Wright in for a
conversation. Eight of them believed that Warren was innocent on all
counts, the lawyers learned, and four believed that he was guilty as
charged. This did not appear to be a case of jury nullification, when
jurors take a position against a certain type of prosecution or charge
and refuse to convict regardless of the evidence. On the contrary,
Kuykendall told me, it was a jury that started from a position of guilt
and evolved as more evidence was presented.
“They were all very suspicious,” he said, and their deliberations
Warren walked out of the courthouse to a crowd of friends and the press.
Standing under the shade of a tree in a light gray suit, he thanked the
people who had supported him and called attention to the fact that
Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday had regrettably not received the same
support. “Since my arrest in January 2018, at least 88 bodies were
recovered from the Ajo corridor of the Arizona desert,” Warren told
the crowd. “We know that’s a minimum number and that many more are out
there and have not been found.”
“The government’s plan, in the midst of this humanitarian crisis?” he
asked. “Policies to target undocumented people, refugees, and their
families; prosecutions to criminalize humanitarian aid, kindness, and
_Border Patrol agents_ recovered the body of 6-year-old Gurupreet Kaur
the following day. She was found south of Ajo, on the Organ Pipe Cactus
National Monument, where Warren and other area humanitarian groups have
directed much of their work. Her cause of death was heat stroke.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, temperatures had
reached a high of 108 degrees in the area where she was found. The
second grader passed away while her mother, who came to the U.S. from
India to seek asylum, was searching for water.
That afternoon, U.S. Attorney’s office issued a statement saying that it
would make a determination as to whether to retry Warren’s case ahead of
a July 2 hearing.
The knot of compounding disasters, tragedies, and outrages on the border
seemed to somehow worsen in the days that followed, with fresh evidence
of children held
in horrifying conditions at immigration detention centers, the drowning
of a father and daughter who attempted to cross the Rio Grande, and
<https://theintercept.com/2019/07/05/border-patrol-facebook-group/> of a
secret Border Patrol Facebook group that was a cesspool of rage and hate
and boasted nearly 10,000 members, including the Border Patrol chief
Nobody knew what to expect when Warren returned to court in early July.
Would the U.S. Attorney’s office take the 8-to-4 split as a sign that
their case was flawed and pack it up? Or, after all this time and
effort, would they stay the course?
At 9:37 a.m. on July 2, Collins’s courtroom filled. Anna Wright, who
just a few weeks earlier had passionately argued that Warren was the
ringleader in a network of nonprofit human smugglers, informed the judge
that the government was dropping its conspiracy charge. The U.S.
Attorney’s office would continue to pursue the two harboring charges,
Wright said, though Warren had the option to accept a plea deal, if he
The government had split the difference, abandoning a core component of
its criminal narrative, while holding on to the possibility of still
eking out a win down the line. Standing outside the court, under the
same trees where he had addressed the media weeks before, Warren said in
a statement that he and his attorneys were “ready for the second trial
and more prepared than ever.” Though, he added, it remained “unclear
what the point of all this effort, time, and money has been and now
continues to be.”
“While I do not know what the government has hoped to accomplish here,”
Warren said, “I do know what the effect of all this has been and will
continue to be: a raising of public consciousness, a greater awareness
of the humanitarian crisis in the borderlands, more volunteers who want
to stand in solidarity with migrants, local residents stiffened in their
resistance to border walls and the militarization of our communities,
and a flood of water into the desert at a time when it is most needed.”
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