2 convicted in murder of Border Patrol agent that exposed Fast and Furious
TUCSON — Two men were convicted of murder Thursday in the killing of a Border Patrol agent whose death brought to light the bungled federal gun-tracking operation known as Fast and Furious.
The jury took only 3 1⁄2 hours to find Jesus Leonel Sanchez-Meza and Ivan Soto-Barraza guilty of all counts in the killing of Brian Terry, 40. They face life in prison and will be sentenced in December.
The 2010 killing exposed the Fast and Furious operation in which agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed criminals to buy guns with the intention of tracking the weapons. But the agency lost most of the guns, including two that were found at the scene of Terry’s slaying.
The operation set off a political firestorm, led to congressional investigations and became a major distraction for President Obama in his first term.
The judge in the murder case restricted any mention of Fast and Furious, but it still marked the first trial for any defendants in the case.
Two suspects have pleaded guilty, and two others remain fugitives.
The victim’s sister, Michelle Terry-Balogh, broke down in tears as she read a statement outside court thanking the jury for its decision. She and other relatives live in Michigan and traveled to Arizona to attend the weeklong trial.
“The verdict delivered by the jury today is testimony of the vicious and violent assault that took place upon Brian and his fellow Border Patrol agents,” Terry-Balogh said.
Terry was part of a four-man Border Patrol team from an elite tactical unit that had been in the Arizona desert for two days on a mission to arrest “rip-off” crew members who rob drug smugglers along the border with Mexico. The agents said during testimony that there had been several robberies of drug smugglers in the southern Arizona dessert and that the Border Patrol was targeting them through a weekslong operation.
As they came across Sanchez-Meza, Soto-Barraza and three members of a rip crew, an agent yelled “policia!” The bandits refused to stop. An agent then fired non-lethal bean bags toward the bandits, who responded by firing from AK-47-type assault rifles.
Terry never had a chance to fire. He died of a gunshot wound that entered through his back.
Prosecutors said DNA and fingerprint evidence belonging to Sanchez-Meza and Soto-Barraza were found on backpacks, food and beverages left behind at the scene. Sanchez-Meza and Soto-Barraza also told an FBI agent that they were part of the rip crew.
The case was prosecuted by a team from San Diego to avoid a conflict of interest in Arizona.
Defense attorneys said the men were acting in self-defense in response to the bean-bag rounds fired by the agents. The lawyers said they had no comment after the verdict.
The killing led to intense political rhetoric as Republicans sought to hold the Obama administration accountable over the Fast and Furious operation. They conducted a series of inquiries into how the Justice Department allowed guns to end up in the hands of criminals.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder was held in contempt after he refused to divulge documents for a congressional investigation into the matter. Since then, the Justice Department has focused on arresting and trying all suspects involved.
In their statement after the verdict, Terry’s family members repeated their harsh criticism of government officials over Fast and Furious. Prosecutors declined to comment after the verdict.
“Ultimately, it was these officials that allowed weapons to flow to the drug cartels and ultimately into the hands of the man that killed Brian Terry. These government officials should also be held responsible in the court of law,” the family said.
Soto-Barraza and Sanchez-Meza, also known as Lionel Portillo-Meza, were convicted of charges including murder, conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery, attempted interference of commerce by robbery, assault on a federal officer and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence.