Last month federal authorities ruled that an Indigenous American man’s death at the hands of Border Patrol after reporting undocumented migrants on his property in May was justified. However, Raymond Mattia’s family say their loved one “died with no dignity,” and they are demanding changes to the ways Indigenous Americans living on reservations are treated by law enforcement.
Mattia’s niece explained to The Daily Beast that her uncle’s death on the Tohono O’odham reservation in Arizona had greatly impacted both the family and their community.
“I think it really changed all of us,” Lisa Mattia said.
On May 18, the Tohono O’odham Nation Police Department (TOPD) contacted the U.S. Border Patrol for assistance. According to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection press release, agents were alerted that there had been reports of gunshots within a certain area and were directed to search for a possible suspect. They encountered a man standing outside a home, with the report stating he threw something at an officer as they approached the house.
“Shortly after the individual threw the object, he abruptly extended his right arm away from his body and three agents fired their service weapons striking the individual several times,” the press release said. “The individual fell to the ground, and the officer and agents slowly approached the man.”
Mattia, 58, was later pronounced dead at a Tucson hospital, and the agents involved were placed on administrative leave while both the TOPD and FBI conducted an investigation.
However, Lisa says there was a whole other side of her uncle’s death that wasn’t taken into consideration.
She told The Daily Beast that she found out about the shooting through her mother, Mattia’s sister. Her mom, who didn’t live far from Mattia within their family compound, had been on the phone with him just minutes before he was killed. She had called Mattia to let him know that law enforcement was within the compound because, she thought, they were searching for migrants. But moments after getting off the phone with him, she heard a cacophony of gunshots.
“It’s a really hurtful situation that [Mom] is going to have to live with for the rest of her life,” Lisa said, adding that the family believes about 38 shots were fired.
She says the Tohono O’odham Nation—just miles from the Mexico border near Ajo, Arizona–is a tight-knit community so the news about what happened traveled quickly, including to Mattia’s two adult children who lived with their mother on the reservation.
“Everybody was crying… It was really chaotic,” Lisa said. “The whole community was kind of involved because the whole community heard all of the shots, and it kind of echoed because the community is in a valley of mountains. Sound travels.”
Lisa said her uncle had called law enforcement to complain about migrants trespassing on his property.
She says the police on the Tohono O’odham reservation often use Border Patrol as backup, and vice-versa, adding that “there’s only so many tribal police officers to the point where… there’s not enough to service the whole tribal reservation.”
“A lot of the Border Patrol out there have military backgrounds,” Lisa said. “They’re coming from a warzone. Are they trained that they’re going to another warzone, that is the reservation?”
According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, Border Patrol’s training process is “one of the most rigorous and demanding law enforcement training programs in the country” in order to monitor the national border and immigration.
“One of the most important activities of a Border Patrol agent is line watch,” the U.S. Customs and Border Protection site says. “This involves the detection, prevention and apprehension of terrorists, undocumented individuals and human smugglers at or near the land border.”
Bodycam footage compiled from different agents at the time of Mattia’s shooting shows Border Patrol and a police officer gathering with one another before embarking on a manhunt. (Lisa said she and her family still have no information about that incident.)
Agents are seen in the footage arriving at a house and finding a man—who Lisa identified as Mattia—outside, and telling him to put down an object he is holding. Mattia throws the object—later identified as a machete—toward the agents, and they quickly draw their guns while directing Mattia to keep his hands in view.
“Get on your fucking face!” an agent shouts.
Lisa said that Border Patrol agents seen in the footage were acting like they were at war.
“It looks like they’re not going there to be tactical,” she told The Daily Beast. “They weren’t going in there with any kind of organization. It was messy, and it was chaotic.”
Border Patrol directs Mattia to show his hands while he has one buried in a jacket pocket, believing he may have a gun. Mattia backs up towards a wire fence and tosses a cell phone out of his pocket. A string of bullets immediately spray the area. The agents continue to shout demands at Mattia after he’s been shot and lays dead on the ground.
“Do not fucking move!” the agent wearing the body camera yells at the still body. “Put your hands out, bro! You’re going to get shot again!”
Agents step on Mattia’s bloodied back to handcuff him.
“He was lying there dead already. At that point, they were still throwing his body, moving his body around left and right. Still trying to look for a gun,” Lisa said. “He was unarmed.”
Footage from another body camera included in the compilation shows an agent who fired his gun, repeatedly telling Mattia: “We want to help you!”
Agents continued to look for a gun on or near Mattia’s body. It took them more than two-and-a-half minutes before they began to administer aid. All the while, they continue searching and asking about a firearm.
None of the footage sufficiently shows the incident from beginning to end.
Making matters more complicated, Lisa said she doesn’t think anything was done to mitigate the issue surrounding violent undocumented migrants on her uncle’s property.
“It seems as if no one really looked into that,” she said.
On Sept. 19, Lisa said the family drove over an hour to Sells to meet with the Arizona district of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“That’s when they told us they’re not going to pursue any charges against Border Patrol,” she explained, saying her family still had a lot of unanswered questions but were essentially dismissed by government attorneys who told them “it was not a time for discovery.”
Lisa said she cried when federal attorneys said no charges would be pressed.
“It felt deceitful… Any question we asked, we were kind of shut down… We don’t even know the story 100 percent ourselves,” Lisa told The Daily Beast. “It was hard. It was hard going there, and it was hard that it felt like, once again, like they were being secretive about details about that night.”
According to Lisa, attorneys for the government said Border Patrol agents’ actions were “substantial” because, in their statements of the incident, they said they felt threatened.
“Well, where’s the statement from my uncle?” Lisa demanded. “My uncle is not here today to have a statement to say his side of the story.”
The autopsy report, seen by The Daily Beast, states that Mattia sustained nine gunshot wounds, a graze wound, a shrapnel wound, and multiple blunt force injuries. The death was ruled a homicide by gunshot.
The toxicology report showed that Mattia had alcohol and drugs in his system, including methamphetamine and oxycodone.
But Lisa said her uncle took medication for a horseback-riding injury he had sustained years prior.
“He took medication for his back for years,” she said. “He never gave off the impression that he was under the influence of recreational drugs. At the time of the shooting, he was compliant and had full control of his bodily functions and not acting erratically.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona declined to provide specific details of the meeting with Mattia’s family, unedited footage from the body cameras worn by Border Patrol agents, the number of times agents fired their guns, or updates regarding protection from alleged trespassing migrants.
After meeting with authorities, Lisa said she felt totally vulnerable on the drive home. She noted that her family traveled over an hour to be given no answers. Then to be told there would be no repercussions over her uncle’s death was “more hurtful than anything.”
“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,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona announced in an Oct. 10 press release.
Though the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided against prosecution, a spokesperson with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection told The Daily Beast that their investigation and review of Mattia’s death is ongoing.
“Is it because we’re Native American we don’t deserve answers?” Lisa asked. “They think we should go home and cry and get over it.”
The Daily Beast was unable to reach the Tohono O’odham Nation Police Department in multiple, repeated phone calls by the time of publishing.
The fight continues
Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Verlon Jose said he is considering pushing for a congressional inquiry into the decision not to pursue charges against Border Patrol.
“Where in America is it okay for law enforcement officials, or anyone else, to take an unarmed man’s life?” he said in a statement. “At the very least there needs to be a trial so that the facts can be ascertained, and justice accomplished. …We cannot and will not accept the U.S. Attorney’s decision. On the contrary, we stand by the Mattia family, and all O’odham citizens in seeking justice.
“Members of the Tohono O’odham Nation should not have to worry that their lives could be randomly cut short by federal agents acting on Tohono O’odham sovereign land,” he said. “In Mr. Mattia’s case, he was not only on O’odham land, but at his own home, and defenseless.”
The Mattia family says they won’t let the matter go.
“My family wants justice for my Uncle Ray. We want to keep talking about it. We want everybody to know about it,” Lisa said. “We want to tell everybody that the Border Patrol was wrong in this situation. …We want the Tohono O’odham police to know that they were wrong. …We want policies to change on this reservation.”
The family’s attorney, Ryan Stitt, told The Daily Beast he plans to file a civil rights lawsuit claiming use of excessive force, deprivation of constitutional rights, assault, battery, and wrongful death.
Lisa said that dealing with law enforcement as a tribal member has always been “scary,” but now the community is even more afraid to call for help.
“[My mom] used to call Border Patrol and TOPD, but she told me… she is never going to call them again,” she said. “Look what happened to her brother, and she wonders what could happen to her if she called them.”
For the next year, Lisa explained that the Mattia family will honor her uncle’s spirit in a traditional Tohono O’odham custom. His house and belongings will remain untouched in case Mattia’s spirit could be lingering on an earthly plane.
“We just give that time to heal, kind of like giving time for the deceased to fully understand, to be aware of what happened. …Leave them at peace,” she said.
Lisa said Mattia was her favorite uncle, and he inspired her through his activism around Indigenous rights.
“He spoke about border issues and how they affected our community,” she explained. “He contributed to various newspaper articles to make the rest of the world aware of our community’s…issues. He was also a community representative where he was trying to make changes for the better.”
However, Lisa says her fond memories of Mattia are now mixed with thoughts of the tragic way his life was taken away.
“My Uncle Ray was always a clean person. He was always well dressed, was always well-presented, but he died with no dignity. I think that’s how they treat all of us down there,” she says. “A week before his death, me and my mom danced to Mexican music with him around a campfire until late in the night. I’m grateful to have that late memory, spending time with him.”