Home » Justice Department Won’t Charge Border Patrol Agents Who Killed Native Man

Justice Department Won’t Charge Border Patrol Agents Who Killed Native Man

Federal authorities will not bring charges against U.S. Border Patrol agents who shot and killed a Native American man outside his home in southern Arizona earlier this year.

Late last month, federal prosecutors in Arizona invited the family of 58-year-old Raymond Mattia to meet in Sells, Arizona, a main population center of the Tohono O’odham Nation, which spans large swaths of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mattia’s loved ones and legal team attended the September 19 meeting under the impression that lingering questions surrounding Mattia’s May 18 killing would finally be answered. Instead, the family says they were given general descriptions of the law alongside confirmation that the officers and agents involved in the shooting would not face charges. Federal prosecutors, joined by a tribal liaison and an FBI agent, refused to answer questions as to how, specifically, the government reached its conclusion.

“It felt like we lost him again.”

It’s kind of still surreal,” Mattia’s niece, Yvonne Nevarez, who attended the meeting, told The Intercept. “It felt like we lost him again.”

Prosecutors gave the family the impression they would have their questions answered at the meeting, said Ryan Stitt, a California-based attorney for Mattia’s relatives. Stitt said the refusal to answer questions undercut new Justice Department guidelines on the rights of crime victims.

“We wanted to have a fact-driven discussion about what happened to better understand their decision not to prosecute,” Stitt told The Intercept. “I was very clear that I did not want to recommend to the family that they come to this meeting if it wasn’t going to be a fact-driven discussion.”

In the absence of answers, Mattia’s relatives plan to file a civil rights lawsuit against the federal government. “It was disappointing and upsetting for the family,” Stitt said. “It puts them in a position where they have to file a lawsuit to get basic questions answered, like who shot Ray and why.”

In a statement to The Intercept, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona said, “Department of Justice employees, including supervisory and line Assistant U.S. Attorneys, a victim advocate and an FBI agent, met with Mr. Mattia’s family and the family’s lawyers in Sells on September 19 for more than an hour.”

“The employees explained our conclusion in the criminal investigation — that the agents’ use of force under the facts and circumstances presented in this case does not rise to the level of a federal criminal civil rights violation or a criminal violation assimilated under Arizona law — and addressed questions posed by the family and the lawyers,” spokesperson Zach Stoebe said. “We decline to comment more specifically on the meeting between the family and the Department employees: victims have an inherent right to speak with the press, and to criticize their government.”

Edited Body Camera Footage

Mattia spent the entirety of his life in Menagers Dam, a remote Tohono O’odham village situated directly on the border, where he was an active member of the community, artist, and avid hunter. In June, Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, released body camera footage of his final moments there, compiled in a 28-minute edited video.

Shortly before he was killed, Mattia had exchanged a series of text messages with his sister, reporting that three men — presumed border crossers — had been in his home demanding to use his phone. The confrontation was apparently tense, with Mattia grabbing his hunting knife to run the men off. Mattia told his sister he called authorities to report the incident.

Soon after the exchange, a convoy of law enforcement vehicles rolled into the village. According to CBP, Border Patrol agents were responding to a call for back-up from Tohono O’odham police, who had received a report of shots fired in the area. No names or addresses were given, and the origin of the purported shots was unclear.

The team met in the dark at a recreation center. The Border Patrol agents wore tactical gear and carried rifles. “It’s going to be a little bit of a guessing game trying to find it,” a Tohono O’odham police officer said of their target, according to the body camera footage. “I don’t know exactly where that motherfucker’s at.”

The tribal officer led the agents to Mattia’s home. Mattia stepped out in the dark to greet them. He was ordered to step forward and show his hands. As Mattia complied with the commands, law enforcement officials mistook a cellphone in his hand for a gun. Initial reports indicated as many as 38 rounds were fired. A medical examiner’s report, ruling the case a homicide, said Mattia was shot nine times. The body camera footage indicated that roughly 31 seconds passed from the moment Mattia received his first command to the moment the first shot was fired.

Raymond Mattia, who was killed in a Border Patrol raid in May, as seen in a recent family photograph.

Photo: Courtesy of Yvonne Nevarez

Though Mattia’s family went into last month’s meeting with notice that charges would not be filed, they still had questions. From the outset, the edited body camera footage had raised their concerns.

“We mostly wanted to know why we weren’t allowed to view the entire video,” Nevarez said. “We also wanted to ask if there was something that they saw that we didn’t.”

Additionally, the family sought clarity on the murky circumstances that brought the authorities to Mattia’s door in the first place. They wanted to know if investigators had considered the mindset of the agents who responded to the call. Having reviewed the body camera footage herself, Nevarez thought it looked like less like law enforcement and more like battlefield prep for a night raid on an enemy compound.

“They were all there, hyped up, walking in like a war zone,” she said. “He really didn’t have a chance. They were out to get somebody.”

Victims Rights

Ahead of the meeting, at the request of the assistant U.S. attorney leading the government’s case, Stitt shared a list of the family’s questions. The two sides had agreed that they qualified as victims under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. That meant the family was entitled to rights established in revised guidelines Attorney General Merrick Garland unveiled in 2022.

The new rules — which went into effect this year and which Garland described as “victim-centered and trauma-informed” — advise federal authorities that a “strong presumption exists in favor of providing, rather than withholding, assistance and services” to victims. In meetings, the guidelines say, prosecutors should strive to both obtain and share information.

“We were very clear we wanted to assert their rights under the rules as victims to the fullest extent possible,” Stitt said. The questions the family had were neither complicated nor sensitive, he argued. They wanted to know how many shots were fired and if the Tohono O’odham police officer on hand participated in the shooting.

“They would not answer that question,” Stitt said. “They would not answer the question about how many shots were fired or why. They said that all the Border Patrol officers made statements to the FBI but would not disclose any detail about those statements other than they exist.”

At one point, Stitt said, the family was told that the purpose of the meeting was not to gather ammunition for a civil lawsuit. The comment was surprising and unsettling, given that the same federal prosecutor responsible for overseeing the decision to not bring criminal charges in Mattia’s case would also defend the federal government if his family brought a civil suit.

“It seems like it was an inappropriate response to the family to treat the meeting as just a way to tell them that no charges will be filed.”

“No civil case has been filed, and the family is looking for honest questions about what happened,” Stitt said. “We certainly can’t say that they’ve acted unethically, but we obviously have a lot of questions, and we were hopeful to get answers during the meeting. It seems like it was an inappropriate response to the family to treat the meeting as just a way to tell them that no charges will be filed and to provide no further factual explanation why.”

Among the most pressing of the family’s concerns, Nevarez said, was the unanswered question of what — if anything — the federal government intends to do to disentangle the relationship between the Tohono O’odham Nation Police Department and the U.S. Border Patrol going forward.

“We feel like we don’t even want to call TOPD or trust TOPD anymore because they can call Border Patrol just like they did for my uncle Ray,” she said. “We’re afraid the same thing would happen to us.”

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October 2023