Two men suspected of smuggling illegal immigrants led Border Patrol agents on a wild chase Thursday that began at the INS Interstate 5 checkpoint in San Onofre and ended 34 miles later on an Irvine street, where the suspects crashed their station wagon, authorities said.
Border Patrol agents arrested the two suspects and three others after a 25-minute pursuit, which took place in light, post rush-hour traffic. No one was injured in the chase, which drew criticism from city officials in San Clemente and Irvine, who say such chases endanger the lives of innocent people.
U.S. authorities have defended their chase policy and say officers exercise maximum caution during any pursuit.
Border Patrol spokesman Ted Swofford in San Clemente said the incident began about 10 a.m. when a 1977 Datsun station wagon with California license plates raced through the San Onofre checkpoint despite efforts by agents to get the driver to stop.
Agents in two cars pursued the orange station wagon, which hit speeds of up to 90 m.p.h. as it weaved through light traffic on Interstate 5.
"He was really accelerating," Swofford said, referring to the driver. "A lot of innocent people are fortunate that he didn't lose control of the vehicle."
The chase ended a few moments after the driver exited on Jamboree Road in Irvine and headed west. On reaching Michelson Drive, the fleeing car grazed an oncoming vehicle driven by an unidentified woman motorist before crashing into a curb.
The getaway driver and his front-seat passenger fled the vehicle. Both were captured about 500 yards away in a grassy field, Swofford said. Authorities identified the driver as Antonio Martinez Avila, 29, a native of Michoacan in Mexico, and the other fleeing suspect as 35-year-old Mario Moreno Hernandez.
Swofford said Hernandez had a criminal record, including a 2 1/2-year prison term for two separate convictions in Los Angeles County for selling narcotics. He was wanted by authorities for violation of his parole and has also been convicted of at least 10 misdemeanors including narcotics sale and petty theft during the past five years, Swofford said.
Swofford said that all five suspects claimed to have committed no other crime than sneaking into the United States but that three of the men told Border Patrol investigators that they had each paid $350 to Avila and Hernandez to smuggle them into the country.
Swofford said the two suspected smugglers will be taken to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego to await hearings on smuggling charges. If convicted, they face up to six years in prison, he said.
The three others are being held "as material witnesses against the suspects" at an immigration detention center in San Ysidro. "When they're no longer needed, they have an option to get a deportation hearing or to return voluntarily to Mexico," Swofford said.
Swofford said it was unusual for the chase to reach Irvine. "Very seldom do we get them to go that far," he said. "We have one (chase) a day that goes for 2 or 3 miles, but not 34 miles."
Irvine Mayor Sally Anne Sheridan expressed alarm at the chase. "We do not like high-speed chases through our city," Sheridan said. "I understand we have no control over it, but innocent people are the victims. It's unfortunate that these kinds of things happen."
Lt. Bob Lennert of the Irvine police said: "We're counting our blessings because we don't get many of these INS chases ending here. We're very fortunate that no one got hurt."
The San Onofre checkpoint, which is the backup checkpoint to the border stations 70 miles to the south, has been a target of frequent criticism by San Clemente city officials, who say that chases that begin at the checkpoint endanger city residents and others.
Federal immigration officials have agreed to replace the 23-year-old site with an expanded facility at Horno Canyon--2.2 miles south of the existing checkpoint, where Border Patrol officials say more than 69,000 illegal immigrants were arrested during the 1991 fiscal year, which ended in October.
On Thursday, San Clemente Mayor Joseph Anderson said the planned $30-million, 16-lane checkpoint "is the only hope to prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries."
"But this (chase) is definitely not a good way to start the new year," Anderson said.
In 1990, at least 12 people were killed on Interstate 5 during Border Patrol chases. No figures were available for 1991.