Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cessna 172N, N5283E: Pilot charged with smuggling immigrants on plane

A Cessna rented from the Hemet-Ryan Flight School was seized during a smuggling operation in El Centro. (Hemet-Ryan Flight School,

Federal prosecutors have accused a Hemet pilot of trying to fly a group of illegal immigrants from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Hemet airport.

Authorities say the smuggling flights are a new method used to bypass Border Patrol checkpoints on the ground.

The plane was the fourth flight with illegal immigrants on board intercepted by El Centro Border Patrol agents since 2010, but perhaps the first headed to Hemet or other Inland airports.

Planes have long been used to ferry drugs, but human smuggling is a phenomenon that has emerged in the past two years, El Centro Border Patrol Agent Adrian Corona said.

“It seems to be a new avenue they’re using, and our agents are trying to stop this method,” Corona said. “We do have very good coverage at checkpoints, but from the looks of these cases, they’re trying to circumvent our checkpoints (by flying over) and making their way toward Los Angeles.”

Federal prosecutors charged Lino Rodriguez-Chavez, 30, of Hemet, with one count of illegal transportation of an alien after he was stopped on the runway trying to fly three illegal immigrants to Hemet.

He pleaded not guilty Monday and was released on $20,000 bond. Rodriguez-Chavez, a U.S. citizen, was ordered not to enter Mexico, according to court records.

If convicted, Rodriguez-Chavez faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He has no prior criminal record in Riverside County. His attorney, Mahir Sherif, did not return phone calls Wednesday.

During the arrest, Homeland Security agents were conducting surveillance Friday on six immigrants at a Motel 6 in El Centro, according to a criminal complaint filed in San Diego federal court.

Border Patrol officials believe the immigrants crossed the border through downtown Calexico in Imperial County. They were held briefly at a home that night before they were taken to the motel. Border Patrol agents saw them moved to a motel about midnight.

About 2 p.m. Friday, Chavez-Rodriguez and another man loaded three of the immigrants into a Dodge Caravan and drove to the Imperial County Airport. The immigrants boarded the plane, registered to the Hemet-Ryan flight school, according to FAA records.

U.S. Border Patrol agents blocked the runway with emergency vehicles as the 172N Skyhawk Cessna began to taxi for takeoff, according to the complaint.

The three immigrants — Ramiro Bravo-Botello, Maria Del Carmen Torres-Vasquez and Rosalina Suarez-Torres — told agents they each paid Rodriguez $2,500 to be flown past border checkpoints to Hemet.

Hemet-Ryan Flight School owner Denney Marsh said Rodriguez-Chavez rented a plane from the school last week. He was soon notified that the plane was seized by Border Patrol agents.

“This is a pretty sleepy place,” Marsh said. “There’s a lot of people here every day, but you don’t see illegal activity.”

The flight school rents planes to any licensed pilot for $125 per hour, according to its website. The flight school opened two years ago and has one plane remaining. Marsh said he hopes the seized plane is returned, or else he may go out of business.

“We don’t rent to them unless they have proper records,” Marsh said. “We rent planes in good faith and hope it returns in one piece. Once it leaves, there’s no rope attached.”

Border Patrol agents are contacting airports warning them to look for suspicious activity. No immigration enforcement is planned at local municipal airports, Corona said.

Riverside County, which operates Hemet-Ryan, planned to notify the FAA of the incident, which may also lead to future funding for security improvements.

Officials said operators would also be notified at Hemet and other county airports, including French Valley, Chiriaco Summit, Thermal and Blythe. The county will ask fixed-base operators conducting business at airports to document all landings and tail numbers in order to monitor suspicious activity, Riverside County spokesman Ray Smith said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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