Authorities arrested a laborer Wednesday and charged him with firing the shot that killed a 12-year-old undocumented Mexican boy who was gunned down almost seven months ago as he and family members walked along a border hillside en route to his parents’ home in Orange County.
The death of Emilio Jimenez Bejines is among the border-area homicides this year that led the presidents of both Mexico and the United States to condemn the growing violence at a meeting in Monterrey, Mexico, last month.
Charged with first-degree murder in the shooting is Dwight Ray Pannel, a 23-year-old U.S. citizen who lives in Imperial Beach and works occasional construction jobs. Pannel was arrested at his home and was being held on $1-million bail. He was also charged in several robberies and an assault case involving undocumented immigrants who were victimized earlier on the day of the killing for “beer money,” according to court papers.
Shortly before firing the fatal shot, according to a witness quoted in court papers, Pannel told a witness, “Let’s shoot some aliens.” He then fired a .30-caliber hunting rifle toward a hillside where many undocumented immigrants had gathered, the witness told investigators. Pannel fired from the rear balcony of the home of a friend who lives about half a mile north of the international boundary along Monument Road in San Diego, in an area regularly traversed by migrants headed north.
Luis Aragon, the deputy San Diego district attorney who is prosecuting the case, declined to comment on the suspect’s motive and refrained from calling the shooting a racially linked “hate crime.”
“I’m not ruling out anything at this point,” said Aragon, who has overseen the extensive investigation.
The boy was shot about 3:30 p.m. May 18. He died of a single .30-caliber gunshot wound in the head. He, two siblings and an uncle had crossed the border about 1 1/2 hours earlier on their way to Emilio’s parents’ home.
The dead boy’s father is a legal U.S. resident via the amnesty program, but the three youths and the boy’s mother are undocumented, family members said. The Jimenez family is one of thousands divided by immigration status since 1986, when the amnesty provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act resulted in legal residence for many, but in some cases left relatives of the newly legalized without papers.
“We’ve suffered enough from this,” the boy’s father, Ernesto Jimenez, said Wednesday. “All we want is justice.”
Enrique Loaeza, the Mexican consul general in San Diego, said the Mexican government was “very satisfied” that the long-pending inquiry finally appears to be moving forward.
The charges against Pannel represent a major turnaround in the investigation, the result, prosecutors say, of lengthy questioning of witnesses.
Throughout, investigators say they were convinced that the fatal bullet was fired from the rear balcony of the border-area family home of Leonard Paul Cuen, 21, who was at first arrested as a suspect but was released 10 days later. Ballistics tests have positively identified Cuen’s .30-caliber hunting rifle as the murder weapon, authorities say. Police had said Cuen fired during a day of beer drinking and target shooting with friends.
However, an affidavit now on file in Superior Court shows that at least three men, including Cuen, fired shots from the balcony on the afternoon of the killing. There is a direct line of fire from the balcony to the site where the boy was felled about 430 yards to the south, authorities say.
Prosecutors now say Cuen was inside the house taking a shower when the fatal shot was fired. Pannel was on the balcony, and, according to the affidavit, two witnesses who were also on the balcony saw Pannel fire into the hills about the time of the boy’s death.
One witness, identified as Julie Hannah, who also was visiting Cuen’s residence, said she heard Pannel state, “Let’s shoot some aliens,” before he fired into the hillside where many undocumented border-crossers had gathered.
The robbery and assault charges against Pannel stem from an attack that occurred a few hours before the slaying. Pannel and two others still at large allegedly robbed two illegal immigrants for “beer money.” The assailants hit one victim on the head with a baseball bat, authorities say. The robbery site is near the house from where Pannel fired the fatal shot at the boy, authorities say.
Although Cuen was not charged in the killing, he faces charges that he participated in the robberies of three illegal immigrants in the border area on March 14. Cuen was allegedly armed with a high-powered bow and arrow. Cuen is free on bail in that case. However, the future of those charges seems cloudy, as the victims could not identify Cuen in a lineup, said Aragon, the deputy district attorney.
A third man, Steve Berry, also fired from the balcony on the afternoon of the killing, according to court papers, but he was not charged.