It began as a sensational story Wednesday morning, then turned downright strange. U.S. Border Patrol officials described six shady characters they said showed up at the scene of a crash near the border last week, perhaps trying to spirit away a smuggler whose reckless driving had just killed two Mexican immigrants.
The agency said it had received information that led it to believe that several Mexican consular representatives had "misidentified themselves" as U.S. immigration officials. They arrived at a hospital where many of the 13 injured were taken. The six then purportedly tried to gain the release of at least one of the alleged smugglers' accomplices, said Border Patrol spokesman Raleigh Leonard.
The FBI was quickly called in. And by Wednesday afternoon, radio host and former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock was on the air, hammering Mexican consular officials. His Web site accuses them of posing as U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents and allegedly "interfering in a murder investigation."
There was one hitch: Officials at the consulate said the men in suits at the crash scene were representing the Mexican government and that they did nothing to interfere with U.S. officials. They wore IDs issued by the INS, the Border Patrol's parent agency, said the spokesman for the consulate in San Diego, Carlos Lozano, who was clearly angered by the allegations.
The Border Parol late Wednesday declined to confirm or deny that the outsiders at the crash scene were, indeed, Mexican consular operatives looking after the well-being of their countrymen.
The crash occurred last Thursday on Interstate 8 east of San Diego at the end of a protracted chase in which a pickup truck driver twice nearly hit U.S. agents while speeding around spike strips laid in the roadway, the INS said.
One spike strip finally punctured one of the truck's tires, but the driver continued on at 80 mph until he swerved into a guardrail and crashed, sending people riding in the truck's bed tumbling down an embankment.
Carlos Moreno, identified by prosecutors as the driver, was charged with two counts of murder, two counts of assault with a deadly weapon and single counts of child endangerment and witness intimidation. He pleaded not guilty in San Diego County Superior Court Tuesday.
A second smuggling suspect is in custody awaiting charges, said a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office. That suspect has not been identified.
Border Patrol agents and Highway Patrol officers said they noticed several Spanish-speaking individuals, wearing suits, who hung around the site long after the late-afternoon crash.
But the American investigators said they were too busy treating victims and investigating the scene to be concerned with the interlopers.
Authorities declined to identify the source but insisted they had received information that Mexican consular employees had falsely claimed they worked for the INS.
They said the "phony" INS agents could have been members of a ring trying to spirit the immigrant smugglers away from U.S. law enforcement officials at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, where the victims were taken. The Mexican officials purportedly tried to free at least one man who allegedly abetted the smugglers.
Border Patrol spokesman Leonard confirmed that the investigation had been handed over to the FBI.
Agent Jan Caldwell, FBI spokeswoman in San Diego, said the bureau would investigate and turn over its findings to the U.S. attorney's office.
But later Wednesday, an angry Lozano said the six men who showed up at the crash site actually were consular officials who rushed to the scene and to Grossmont Hospital to assist the victims.
"I don't know what there is to investigate," Lozano said. "We've informed both the FBI and the Border Patrol that we were at the scene and at the hospital. We were meeting our responsibility to Mexican citizens, who are victims of an unpleasant situation like this."
He said the consulate's concerns were only with helping the victims and not freeing the two smuggling suspects arrested by authorities. The consular officials used identification cards issued to them by the INS, he said.
Lozano denied that consular officials had in any way interfered with the Border Patrol.
"Our people never represented themselves as INS agents or employees of the INS. We were acting in the capacity allowed us as consular employees," he said. "As for the two people arrested by the Border Patrol, they should be prosecuted if in fact they are the smugglers."
If anything, Lozano said, the Border Patrol should be questioned about its decision to pursue the overloaded vehicle at high speed and then to throw the spike strips that he said helped bring the pickup to its fatal stop.
The Border Patrol announced last week that it would investigate whether the chase was proper. A spokesman said it appeared the driver had become such a threat to public safety that he had to be stopped.
Hedgecock announced on the air Wednesday that the Mexican government should be held accountable for the alleged misrepresentations by consular officials. The former mayor's Web site also launched a scathing attack on the consulate and listed a series of officials in both U.S. and Mexican agencies it said should be held accountable.
The Web site for the "radio mayor of California" calls them "agents of a foreign government interfering in a murder investigation, a human smuggling investigation ... on our side of the border. Next we'll [have] folks from the Iraqi consulate wearing INS badges. Yeeeech!"