Two suspected illegal aliens were killed and two injured Monday when their car crashed into a stalled van on the northbound Interstate 5 in San Clemente after leading Border Patrol agents on a high-speed chase, authorities said.
The accident occurred about 11:10 a.m., half a mile south of Camino de Estrella, in the same area where 10 suspected illegal aliens were seriously injured in a crash during a Border Patrol pursuit in December, 1987.
San Clemente officials, who have complained about the dangers of Border Patrol pursuits through their city, expressed shock and anger Monday but seemed to believe that there is little else they can do but repeat their concerns, again.
“Oh, God!” said San Clemente Mayor Pro Tem Brian J. Rice when told by a reporter of the location of Monday’s accident. “That’s the north end of San Clemente.”
Rice said it is distressing that the freeway pursuit had continued nearly all the way through the city but added: “I find it distressing anytime to be honest with you. It’s two human lives.”
San Clemente Mayor Thomas Lorch said: “It’s just a continuing tragedy in these Border Patrol cases.”
But he added: “The INS is very clear on their mandate to engage in a pursuit, and the federal law preempts us (from prohibiting such chases through the city).”
Monday’s accident occurred 8 miles north of the San Clemente Border Patrol checkpoint, where agents tried to stop and inspect a 1969 Plymouth Satellite, California Highway Patrol Officer Ken Daily said.
“They just drove through,” Daily said. “It looked to be a suspect vehicle, and the agents were going to pull it over, but as soon as they pulled out to stop them, the driver steps on the gas and away they go, reaching speeds of up to 100 to 105 (m.p.h.).”
The Plymouth was traveling in the fast lane about half a mile ahead of Border Patrol agents when it approached slow-moving traffic, Daily said. The driver apparently tried to avoid the traffic by swerving to the right and driving in the right shoulder.
However, a truck traveling in the slow lane blocked the driver’s view of the shoulder, where a disabled 1971 GMC van was parked, Daily said. The van had been there for about two hours while the owner walked off the freeway to seek help.
"(The driver of the aliens’ car) tried to swerve to avoid hitting the van, but with the centrifugal force and at the speed he was going, he struck the rear of the van in a broadside,” Daily said.
The impact peeled the roof off the Plymouth and threw one passenger into the trunk of the car, Daily said. Accident investigators estimated that the driver was traveling about 100 m.p.h. when he crashed.
The two men who were killed were identified only as Latinos in their early 20s. One unidentified passenger was in Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center on Monday night in “very critical condition” with severe head injuries, a hospital spokeswoman said.
The driver of the car was identified as Juan Antonio Iniguez, 21, of Baldwin Park. He suffered facial cuts and was taken to the UCI Medical Center jail ward in Orange. Daily said CHP officers arrested Iniguez on two counts of felony manslaughter, and Border Patrol agents arrested him on a charge of impeding federal agents.
Federal officials “are trying to change the construction of the Border Patrol checkpoint to make it more difficult for this to happen,” Rice said. “They are going to move it 5 miles to the south. (But) they are talking about quite a number of years down the line. It’s too late for two people.”
As for complaining to the Border Patrol, Rice said: “I don’t know if there’s anything else we can do. This is a local government trying to put restrictions on the federal government.”
Spokesmen for the Border Patrol could not be reached for comment Monday. But Ron Rogers, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which oversees the Border Patrol, said agents follow a written policy regarding pursuits:
“They make every effort to make them stop and cordon them off and apprehend them. They try to use as much safety as possible. That’s why we have the checkpoints, so the traffic can be slowed. Border Patrol agents are trained in high-speed pursuits. . . . They try to utilize every precaution.
“You don’t know if the only crime they (suspected illegal aliens) have committed is illegal immigration. You might have a dangerous suspect there.”
Following the injury of 10 suspected illegal aliens in December, 1987, in the other chase and crash, the San Clemente City Council was reassured that the Border Patrol would take measures to curb dangerous high-speed chases from its checkpoint 5 miles south of the city.
The Border Patrol was already working with the California Department of Transportation to build off-road facilities for vehicle inspections to make it more difficult to flee the checkpoint, Assistant City Manager Greg Hulsizer said in January.
After meetings between local and federal officials, the Border Patrol said it would follow written guidelines for high-speed pursuits, as well as seek to move the checkpoint 5 miles south.
However, the Border Patrol said its new, $15-million, off-road checkpoint may not be built for 10 years. In July, federal officials revised the estimate, saying the 16-lane checkpoint could be completed within three years.
The Dec. 21, 1987, accident involved 10 suspected Mexican nationals who were injured when they were thrown from a car that flipped on Interstate 5, just south of the Camino de Estrella off-ramp. San Clemente city officials expressed outrage and urged the Border Patrol to speed its planned checkpoint relocation.
One year earlier, another Border Patrol chase through the surface streets of San Clemente had ended with a carload of aliens slamming into a local bank and injuring seven of the car’s occupants. Following that crash, residents inundated city officials with complaints, and the City Council met with federal officials, who assured them that public safety would be maintained in future pursuits.
The Border Patrol estimated in December, 1987, that it conducts four to six high-speed pursuits per month involving cars that run the checkpoint after being told by a uniformed agent to pull over.
Rice was critical of the Border Patrol for “a program that is so stringently enforced on the freeways” while he said illegal aliens “walk up the railroad tracks every day” unimpeded.
“There are five to 10 of them at least once a day,” he said. “When you jeopardize the health of everybody, the Mexicans and Americans, the whole thing is not being done correctly. To jeopardize the Mexicans and families that are on those freeways to stop a car, I can’t fathom it.”
Councilwoman Holly Veale said “the ultimate solution” is relocating the Border Patrol station farther south so there would be “more space between us and them. We’ve made it very clear we can’t tolerate high-speed chases through town. (However,) we understand the officers can’t say there’s a no-chase policy, or they’d be run down at the checkpoint.”
Veale said she has been surprised that the planned relocation has “moved ahead quite quickly.”
“When we met with Congressman (Ron) Packard (R-Carlsbad) the last time, I got the impression it has moved along in terms of priority,” she said.
Packard could not be reached for comment Monday.
Nevertheless, Veale said, “I’m sure there will be a dialogue on this” between city and federal officials.
Rice said he will “most definitely bring it up at the next council agenda . . . and once again state our point of why it has to come to this every time.”
The City Council has asked the Border Patrol to “do everything it can to avoid those chases through our town,” Councilman William C. Mecham said. “We are constantly hoping something will occur that will cause that station to move farther south.
“We’re never happy when someone dies,” he said. “I’m not happy that we haven’t seen a faster move. I would like to see that happen now.”
Mecham said that Monday’s deaths may provide “another impetus for us to further pursue those efforts.”