By Lisa Morton
Sheriff Oscar Carrillo sat back in his chair, pushed back his cap, and with the look of someone who has finally been vindicated, could rightfully say, “I told you so.” The Sheriff had just heard from the Medical Examiner in El Paso who was tasked with finding the cause of death of Border Patrol Officer, Rogelio Martinez on November 18, 2017, ruling that the cause of death was undetermined. The finding put a damper on claims by leaders of a border patrol union, President Trump, Governor Abbott, and Senator Ted Cruz, who used the tragedy to fuel calls for a border wall only hours after the incident, and before the investigation.
Sheriff Carrillo had long maintained doubt that the agents were attacked by drug dealers from across the border, doubt fed by what he saw as one of the first to respond to the grisly scene. The Sheriff was attacked by several groups who refused to believe any other theories besides ambush, with one group going so far as to call the Sheriff a “dingbat,” for entertaining the possibility of an accidental death.
The Sheriff provided plenty of evidence and pictures from the scene to investigators, including his theory of how the agents were injured, and that theory did not include an assault with rocks. According to the sheriff, he had a hard time finding rocks to hold down the crime scene tape when he was cordoning off the area, which was also void of any other evidence pointing to an assault.
A major detail of the investigation, which was only recently divulged, should have debunked any claims of an ambush. According to dispatch records, Stephen Garland, the surviving agent, reported that both he and Martinez had “run into a culvert,” not that they had been ambushed. Garland was able to make his way up the culvert and across the freeway to call for help, in spite of reported back and head injuries which later caused a lapse in his memory.
Although the medical examiner ruled that Officer Martinez’ death was from severe head and facial injuries, the official cause of death in the autopsy was undetermined. A second opinion by an independent medical examiner in California, though, was more unambiguous contending that the cause of death was a fall.
Kevin McAleenan, second in command of the CBP, issued a memo on February 9, confirming that the official stance of the agency was that Officer Martinez’ unfortunate death was a result of a fall from a culvert. The FBI also reported that after an extensive investigation of more than 650 interviews, there was no evidence to indicate that the injuries to both Martinez and the second agent involved, Stephen Garland, was a result of anything more than a fall.
The investigation also did not find any defensive wounds indicating a struggle, no footprints other than the agents’ and first responders at the scene, and no DNA belonging to anyone else besides the agents. The findings from all agencies involved in the nationwide investigation is in clear contrast with the continued insistence by spokesmen from the Border Patrol Union, who remain convinced that the two agents were victims of a vicious ambush by drug dealers who crossed the border illegally.
The FBI will continue to investigate the incident involving Agent Martinez and his partner, and will pursue any new and relevant tips and leads. The FBI continues to offer a reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to the resolution of this case.
The only thing that everyone agrees on is the fact that the death of Agent Martinez is a tragedy, and a reminder of the danger that lurks in the unforgiving desert, a danger that Border Patrol agents and law enforcement face every day. While there is official closure of the death, there is little comfort for his family and his friends, who only know that a young, promising life was cut short in a split second.