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Suspect in Border Killing Held on Robbery Charge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is insufficient evidence to file murder charges against a suspect in the shooting death of a 12-year-old boy along the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, prosecutors said Tuesday, but authorities instead accused the man of the bow-and-arrow robberies of two groups of undocumented immigrants.

The robberies--committed within 10 minutes of each other in March and involving a total of seven victims--are not connected to the murder case, said Luis Aragon, the deputy district attorney who is handling the case.

The accused, Leonard Paul Cuen, 21, whose family home is on San Diego’s Monument Road, about a quarter-mile north of the international boundary, is still considered a suspect in the slaying, according to the district attorney’s office, which contends that the fatal shot was fired from the Cuen home.

Coincidentally, Aragon said, the homicide investigation yielded evidence linking Cuen to the robberies.

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But Aragon explained that “insufficient evidence” currently exists to support the filing of homicide charges against Cuen, who was taken into custody and booked on suspicion of murder a few hours after the killing, which occurred on the afternoon of May 18. Homicide investigators are still evaluating witness statements and awaiting ballistic results, noted Aragon, who left open the possibility that Cuen could be charged with the killing after further investigation.

“Right now our task is to find out what exactly happened on May 18th, what caused the death of this 12-year-old boy, and who caused the death,” Aragon said during an impromptu news conference held outside the district attorney’s office in the county courthouse building.

Cuen was formally arrested Tuesday on robbery and assault charges. He was being held Tuesday night on $45,000 bail at the San Diego County Jail downtown.

Still publicly unaddressed by authorities is the critical issue of whether the shooting was accidental or deliberate. Police told family members that Cuen contends that he may have been target shooting when a bullet went astray and killed the youth, according to an account provided by the victim’s uncle, Emilio Bejines Gomez.

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The deputy district attorney said that authorities have recovered a weapon--a .30-caliber rifle that allegedly belonged to Cuen--and are also in possession of the bullet that pierced the skull of 12-year-old Emilio Eusebio Jimenez Bejines, killing him instantly. Aragon would not comment when asked if ballistic tests had definitively linked the bullet and the weapon.

The boy, accompanied by his uncle and two siblings--who, like him, were entering illegally into the United States--was en route to his parents’ home in Orange County when he was gunned down at midday on a bluff about 350 yards south of Cuen’s home, which is directly in the path of a constant stream of clandestine border-crossers. There is an unobstructed line of fire between the rear of Cuen’s home and the slaying site. Family members accompanying the boy said in interviews with The Times last week that they heard three shots ring out without warning and saw Emilio fall to the ground, although none saw the assailant.

The dead boy’s uncle, Bejines, 22, said that police had told him that a number of witnesses had seen at least one person, possibly more, shooting from the rear of the Cuen family home on the day of the killing. Police have declined to provide additional details.

The case and other recent instances of violence directed at Mexican citizens in California has received extensive press coverage in Mexico, where the reports have fed a widespread perception that expatriate workers in the United States are subject to abuse, prejudice--and, often, racist-motivated violence. Just last week, the Mexican Foreign Ministry, reacting to the boy’s murder and other violent incidents, issued a statement citing the “racist current that affects some areas of California.”

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A four-member commission from the Mexican Foreign Ministry returned to Mexico City this week after visiting San Diego and conducting an inquiry into recent incidents of violence directed at Mexican citizens, said Enrique Loaeza Tovar, the Mexican consul general in San Diego.

The shooting death of the 12-year-old boy was the most dramatic case.

As the murder investigation was proceeding, Aragon, the deputy district attorney, said that information developed linking Cuen to a group of assailants who, in March, robbed two groups of undocumented border-crossers shortly after they entered U.S. territory.

Roberto Martinez, a longtime Latino rights activist in San Diego, said he had come across two of the victims while they were living in the fields of northern San Diego County, and, after hearing their stories, put them in contact with the police.

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The victims told police that one of the thieves carried a high-powered bow and arrow, according to Aragon, who added that a high-powered bow was found during a search of Cuen’s residence.

Martinez, the rights activist, said that the robberies--allegedly committed by four white men in their 20s--occurred near the Cuen family home on Monument Road. According to Martinez’s account, at least one of the robbers encouraged victims to approach by telling them that there was no migra-- the term universally used by undocumented immigrants to refer to U.S. immigration authorities.

Tuesday’s allegations marked the second time this year that law enforcement authorities have accused U.S. citizens of abusing or robbing undocumented immigrants in the San Diego area. Robberies and assaults are common in the unlighted border canyons, which are traversed nightly by hundreds of migrants, but most perpetrators are believed to be Mexican citizens.

In April, San Diego police--reacting to reports on a program telecast nationally on the Fox Network--found that area teen-agers playing war games did encounter and harass migrants in the border area last December. No charges have been filed in that case.

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