8 of 11 Activists Guilty in Alien Sanctuary Case : Defiant Group Says 6-Month Trial Hasn’t Ended Movement to Help Central American Refugees

Times Staff Writer

Eight sanctuary movement activists--including a co-founder of the nationwide effort to help illegal aliens fleeing Central America--were convicted Thursday of 16 felony charges stemming from their church-based activities, but three others were acquitted by a U.S. District Court jury here.

Defense lawyers said they will appeal the convictions.

“Justice was done,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Donald M. Reno Jr. said. “The American system of justice fulfilled its function. I am not happy to see any person convicted of a crime.”

Ever defiant, the 11 defendants were cheered by supporters as they left the courthouse after the intricately woven verdicts that ended a six-month trial but not, they said, the sanctuary movement.


‘No Regrets’

“No, I have no regrets,” said Darlene Nicgorski, 42, of Phoenix, a Roman Catholic nun who was convicted of five felonies, each carrying the possibility of a five-year prison term. “There have been other cases in history where people had to stand up to be a Christian,” she said.

When asked if he would continue to help transport and house illegal aliens from strife-torn El Salvador and Guatemala, the movement co-founder, the Rev. John M. Fife, 46, who was convicted of three felony counts, said: “I plan, for as long as possible, to be part of a congregation that has committed itself to providing sanctuary for refugees.”

But in Washington, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Alan C. Nelson issued a statement saying: “Above all, this case has demonstrated that no group, no matter how well meaning or highly motivated, can arbitrarily violate the laws of the United States. . . . Perhaps now that this verdict is behind us, those of the ‘sanctuary’ movement can redirect their energies in a manner that is within the law.”

The jury returned its verdicts after 48 hours of deliberations spread over nine days; the members somberly entered the federal courtroom shortly after 3 p.m.--none even so much as glancing at the 11 defendants. They departed with polite refusals to elaborate on their decision for reporters.

All told, the jury rendered “guilty” on 18 charges--16 felonies and 2 misdemeanors--against eight defendants. The 30-count indictment had alleged 40 law violations.

The 11 defendants all were charged with conspiracy; most faced additional charges of actually participating in smuggling, transporting, harboring or aiding and abetting illegal aliens.


Guilty Verdicts

Besides Fife and Nicgorski, the jury rendered guilty verdicts against Maria del Socorro Pardo de Aguilar, a 60-year-old widow from Nogales, Mexico, (felony conspiracy and bringing illegal aliens into the United States); Father Anthony Clark, a 37-year-old Roman Catholic priest from Nogales, Ariz., (concealing/harboring illegal aliens); Philip Willis-Conger, the 27-year-old director of the Tucson Ecumenical Council’s refugee task force (conspiracy, transporting illegal aliens and misdemeanor aiding and abetting); Wendy LeWin, 26, a Phoenix worker with the Central American Refugee Project (transporting illegal aliens); Margaret J. (Peggy) Hutchison, 30, a University of Arizona graduate student and Methodist Church activist (conspiracy), and Father Ramon Dagoberto Quinones, 50, a parish priest from Nogales, Mexico, (conspiracy and aiding and abetting).

Those acquitted were James A. Corbett, 52, of Tucson, a retired rancher and one of the sanctuary movement’s founders; Mary K. Doan Espinoza, 31, coordinator of religious education for Sacred Heart Church in Nogales, Ariz., and Nena MacDonald, 38, of Lubbock, Tex., a volunteer worker for the Tucson Ecumenical Council’s refugee task force.

Sentencing was set for July 1. The felony charges carry five-year prison terms, the misdemeanor ones six-month terms.

Called Criminal Venture

During the trial, Reno sought to portray the sanctuary movement as a classic criminal venture and not the church-based ministry that the 11 defendants contended it was. Federal District Judge Earl H. Carroll disallowed any testimony or evidence on religious issues or conditions the aliens were fleeing in Central America.

Those rulings were criticized again Thursday by the defendants, who said they thought the jury’s verdicts reflected the fact that its members were not exposed to the “truth and evidence” about conditions in Central America.

The prosecution had presented 17 witnesses, including 15 Central Americans, a paid undercover informant and an undercover agent of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The defense had rested without calling witnesses.

Defendants Cry, Embrace

The defendants received the jury’s verdicts with little outward reaction, but immediately after, in a small room in the courthouse, they cried and embraced their lawyers and each other. Later, after a prayer service, their mood became defiant.

“This is a sad day for American justice,” Nicgorski said at a press conference after the prayer service. “The trial was not a trial about truth--conditions in Central America, religious freedom, international law.

“If I am guilty of anything, I am guilty of living the Gospel.”

Corbett, who was among those acquitted, said the publicity accompanying the trial had furthered the movement more than the verdicts would stifle it. “The foundation,” he said, “has been laid for sanctuary to continue and to outlast all trials until the message is assimilated that the nonviolent protection of human rights is never ill.”