TUCSON -- Investigators believe that Border Patrol agents involved in a likely “friendly fire” shooting that killed one officer responded from different directions in a dark, rugged canyon and may have misinterpreted their colleagues’ actions on approach, officials said Saturday.
Three agents fired unknowingly at each other after they separately responded to a tripped sensor in a rugged canyon in southeastern Arizona, Cochise County Acting Sheriff Rod Rothrock told The Times on Saturday.
FBI officials said a preliminary investigation showed that Border Agent Nicholas J. Ivie died in a “friendly fire” shooting that only involved the agents. Another agent was shot in the buttocks and ankle and is recovering at home. A third agent was not injured. Authorities have not released their names.
Ivie, a six-year agent, was shot while he and two other colleagues on horseback patrolled an area a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, between Naco and Bisbee. The area is considered a corridor for drug and human smuggling near the Mule Mountains.
The three agents had communicated with each other and knew they were all in the area. Ivie was about 20 yards away from the other two agents and “interpreted defensive postures from the other as aggressive postures,” Rothrock told the Arizona Daily Star, an account he confirmed with The Times.
George McCubbin, union president of the National Border Patrol Council, elaborated. He said the agents converged from opposite directions, descending down hills into a relatively level area thick with brush.
“They were dropping down into this saddle area, coming in from two different sides,” he said.
“This happened between 1 and 2 in the morning, and then with all the brush they may have never even seen each other…maybe they tried to reach each other but couldn’t. They have lots of dead spots in the desert.”
Investigators scoured the desert area on horseback and all-terrain vehicles and with helicopters in the days after the shooting.
Gun-trace documents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives obtained by The Times show that a high-powered rifle and a handgun were found near the shooting scene, though it was not clear whether they were connected to the incident.
A .223 Bushmaster rifle, seized on Wednesday, was “recovered in Mexico in the vicinity where Border Patrol agent was murdered,” according to one of the documents. It says the weapon was purchased in the United States but does not specify where.
A .38-caliber Titan Tiger revolver was recovered separately Tuesday in Mexico, also near the Naco area, a second document says. That trace record included this alert: “Urgent High Profile Border Agent Shot.”
The record says the weapon was originally purchased in February 2009 from the Frontier Gun Shop in Tucson.
Richard Serrano in Washington contributed to this report