Pilot stationed in Maine indicted in Rio Grande death

Posted Feb. 01, 2011, at 4:36 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 01, 2011, at 6:40 p.m.

HOUSTON — A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent appeared in a Maine courtroom on Tuesday to hear charges alleging he lied to investigators about his role in a 2005 incident along Texas’ border with Mexico in which a would-be illegal immigrant drowned.

James Peters, 41, was arrested Tuesday in Houlton, Maine, where he is now stationed. He made an initial appearance in a Bangor, Maine, courtroom on a federal indictment charging him with four counts of making false statements to an investigator. A judge allowed Peters to be released on his own recognizance and set his next court date for Feb. 15 in Houston, where he will be tried.

A Houston grand jury handed up the indictment last month, but the indictment wasn’t unsealed until Tuesday, after Peters’ arrest.

Prosecutors accuse Peters of lying about what led up to the Dec. 14, 2005, drowning death of Carlos Delgadillo Martinez, a Mexican national who was trying to illegally cross into the U.S. with another person on inner tubes near the international bridge in Laredo.

Prosecutors contend that Peters deliberately flew his helicopter too close to the pair in an attempt to force them back to Mexico using the turbulence from his chopper. They say Delgadillo lost contact with the inner tube he was holding, and that he drowned.

A federal public defender who represented Peters at his court appearance Tuesday did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

If convicted, Peters faces up to five years in prison. He has worked for Homeland Security since 1997, becoming a helicopter pilot in 2003.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorneys’ Office in Houston did not immediately return a call on why prosecutors charged him with making false statements, as opposed to a more serious charge.

According to the indictment, Border Patrol agents witnessed the alleged incident involving Peters and the pair trying to cross the river. The agents said they saw the helicopter hover at a low altitude over the individuals, coming close to the bridge.

Internal radio transmissions indicate Peters told an agent he was going to try to make the individuals “go back,” according to the indictment.

A Border Patrol agent told investigators the force of the air turbulence from the low flying helicopter’s rotor made Delgadillo lose his grip on the flotation device. The body of the Mexican citizen was found later that day near the bridge.

When questioned about the incident, Peters told an agent investigating the drowning death that he hadn’t come across any illegal immigrants near the bridge, that he never hovered over the immigrants at a low altitude and he had never brought his helicopter to the level of the bridge or below it because of dangers associated with flying at such a low altitude in that area.

But a video from a Border Patrol pole camera as well as the helicopter’s internal records showed Peters’ aircraft was hovering over the river near the bridge at the time the two individuals were in the river, according to the indictment.

Associated Press writer Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.

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