HOUSTON – A federal jury on Wednesday deliberated the fate of a Department of Homeland Security pilot who is accused by prosecutors of lying about whether he flew his helicopter low over two would-be illegal immigrants in the Rio Grande in South Texas before one of the men drowned.
During closing arguments, prosecutors told jurors that surveillance video clearly shows James Peters flew his helicopter over the immigrants, getting as close as 100 feet to an international bridge in Laredo, in an attempt to drive them back to Mexico as they tried crossing into the United States on Dec. 14, 2005.
"Peters decides to try to push them back, force them back," said prosecutor Joseph Magliolo. "He takes progressively more aggressive action to the folks in the water."
Officials say turbulence from the helicopter's rotor blades made Carlos Delgadillo Martinez lose his grip on an inner tube. His body was found later that day.
Peters was indicted on four counts of making false statements to investigators looking into the drowning death. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted. His trial began Monday afternoon with testimony in the case lasting just over a day.
But lawyers for Peters, 41, told jurors that prosecutors presented flimsy evidence and that the video doesn't clearly show how far above the men the helicopter actually flew.
Thomas Berg, one of Peters' attorneys, told jurors that the pilot didn't lie to investigators when asked if he encountered illegal immigrants that day and whether he flew close to the bridge. Berg said Peters believed he did not fly too close to the bridge and didn't recall flying over any individuals in the river that day.
"The dangerous work (pilots like Peters) do in trying to secure our border is to protect you," Berg told jurors. "He was doing his job that day."
Berg also said there's no proof of anyone drowning on the video.
"This is not a case about killing somebody in a river," he said. "You don't see anybody die in this video. You don't know how that man drowned."
Berg said a Border Patrol agent testified that after the helicopter left, he saw two men get out of the water on the Mexican side of the river. Magliolo acknowledged in his closing statements that the Border Patrol agent said this and that from the video it can be hard to tell whether the inner tube that Delgadillo was holding flipped over. It's unclear if the individuals whom the agent saw getting out of the river were the same ones encountered by the helicopter.
But "Peters had contact with the (illegal immigrants) at the bridge. The video shows that," Magliolo said.
Peters, who is currently stationed in Maine, has worked for Homeland Security since 1997, becoming a helicopter pilot in 2003.