Jury Clears Mexican Who Was Shot by Border Agent

Times Staff Writer

A Mexican citizen who said that a U. S. Border Patrol agent brutalized his pregnant wife was found not guilty Thursday of assaulting the officer during a violent struggle just inside U. S. territory in San Diego.

The man, Francisco Ruiz Chavez, 23, maintained that he intervened to protect his wife, who was six months pregnant, as she was being beaten by the agent. In the ensuing struggle, Ruiz was shot by the agent in the groin and stomach.

The agent, Walter Mark Davenport, 27, charged that Ruiz tossed a rock that hit him in the face, an allegation denied by Ruiz. Davenport had been a Border Patrol agent nearly three years when the shooting took place in March.

Investigation Demanded

The incident, which occurred after a number of other high-profile shootings by the Border Patrol and San Diego police along the U.S.-Mexican border, prompted Mexico to issue a statement condemning "acts of violence" against its citizens and demanding a "thorough investigation" of the case.

In the wake of the federal jury verdict Thursday, Ruiz is expected to file a multimillion-dollar wrongful-shooting claim against the agent and the Border Patrol.

Michael Gregg, a spokesman for the agency in San Diego, reiterated earlier comments that Davenport acted appropriately in the face of a life-threatening situation.

"Just because this guy was acquitted, it doesn't mean that Agent Davenport acted outside the scope of his duties," Gregg said.

However, Ruiz's attorney, C. Anthony Valladolid of San Diego, said the jury's decision means just that. Ruiz could not have legally intervened in an arrest by a federal officer, Valladolid noted, unless the jury had found that the agent had resorted to unnecessary force.

"This is a de facto finding that the officer used excessive force," Valladolid said.

Ruiz, a laborer who lives in the northern Mexican city of Ciudad Obregon, was charged with a single count of assaulting the agent. After the shooting, Ruiz was taken by Life Flight helicopter to UC San Diego Medical Center for treatment.

On Thursday, the jury of six men and six women deliberated less than two hours before handing down its verdict. It had heard two days of testimony before U. S. District Judge Gordon Thompson.

Marcela Merino, who heads the citizen-protection division of the Mexican Consulate in San Diego, said the government is pleased by the jury's findings.

In his civil claim against the government, Ruiz is expected to retain Marco E. Lopez, a San Diego attorney who has represented a number of other Mexican citizens who say they were wrongfully shot by the Border Patrol.

In the case of Ruiz, the defense contended that the government agent had resorted to "outrageous" and brutal conduct.

The two sides told sharply divergent stories about the incident, which occurred shortly before 11 a.m. March 28 along the northern levee of the Tijuana River, just west of the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The area is a favorite crossing point for undocumented immigrants.

Running Errands

Ruiz says his wife, Evelyn Castaneda Serna, 22, also a citizen of Mexico, was crossing that morning for several errands, among them obtaining a birth certificate for a daughter who was born in San Diego County. Ruiz accompanied his wife to the border.

As his wife attempted to negotiate the levee area, according to Ruiz, the agent jumped from his vehicle and grabbed the woman, who Ruiz said was clearly pregnant. He said the agent then slammed her to the ground, grabbed her hair, put his boot on her body, and, eventually, pressed the boot against her swollen stomach. Ruiz acknowledged approaching the agent and brandishing a rock in order to distract the officer, but he denies throwing it.

Castaneda entered a guilty plea to entering the United States illegally, and served a 60-day prison sentence before she was returned to Mexico. She gave birth to the couple's baby boy last month.

Davenport, in his statements, said the woman resisted arrest and that eventually the two of them tumbled to the ground. He acknowledged that he may have stepped on her arm or jacket but denied having stomped her or having put his foot on her body.

According to Davenport, Ruiz approached him in a threatening manner, and, when he was within 5 feet of the officer, he hurled a rock that hit the agent near his right eye. Davenport said he then fired twice in self-defense.

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