Desert manhunt underway after border agent killing

Federal officers, Arizona law enforcement team up to try to find sole remaining suspect in Tuesday's fatal shooting

Published December 16, 2010 7:25PM (EST)

Teams of border officers are combing a section of the Arizona desert about 10 miles north of Mexico in search of the lone outstanding suspect in the fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent.

They're on horseback and all-terrain vehicles searching rugged, hard-to-reach spots in a mountainous area just north of Nogales in southeastern Arizona. They're also in patrol cars searching the perimeter.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, whose deputies are helping in the search, says they'll keep at it until the suspect is caught or they're sure he's gone for good.

Brian A. Terry was waiting with three other agents in a remote area north of Nogales late Tuesday when the gunbattle erupted and he was killed. Four suspects are in custody.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- A shootout between border patrol agents and bandits near Arizona's troubled boundary with Mexico has left one American agent dead and a suspect wounded, a union leader says.

The clash Tuesday night came after agents spotted suspected bandits known for targeting illegal immigrants along a violent smuggling corridor in the Arizona desert, National Border Patrol Council President T.J. Bonner said.

Brian A. Terry, 40, was waiting with three other agents in a remote area north of the border city of Nogales late Tuesday when the gun battle erupted, Bonner said. Terry died in the shooting, but no other agents were injured.

Border Patrol spokesman Eric Cantu and FBI spokeswoman Brenda Lee Nath declined to confirm Bonner's account but said that authorities have four suspects in custody and are searching for a fifth. The Border Patrol declined to reveal the country of origin of the suspects.

The shooting followed months of heated political rhetoric on the immigration issue in Arizona as lawmakers passed a sweeping crackdown on illegal immigrants. Politicians pushing for immigration reform cite violence episodes like the Border Patrol shooting as proof that the state and federal governments need to better secure the border.

"It is a stark reminder of the very real dangers our men and women on the front lines confront everyday as they protect our communities and the American people," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She plans to be in Arizona on Thursday and Friday to meet with Border Patrol agents in Nogales and Tucson.

The shooting occurred in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, the busiest gateway for illegal immigrants into the United States. Half of the marijuana seizures along the 1,969-mile southern border are made in the sector, which covers 262 miles of the boundary.

Terry was part of an elite squad similar to a police SWAT team that was sent to a remote area north of Nogales known for border banditry, drug smuggling and violence, said Border Patrol Agent Brandon Judd, president of the local agents' union.

Terry and the other agents came across a group of five people. There was no sign that they were hauling drugs, but two were carrying rifles, said Judd, who didn't know what prompted the firefight.

Bonner, whose group represents 17,000 agents, said the fatal shooting shows that the border is still dangerous.

"This is a sign that the politicians and bureaucrats are overly optimistic in their assessment that the borders are more secure now than at any point in our history. It showed just the opposite," Bonner said.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who has railed against border violence and signed Arizona's new illegal-immigration law earlier this year, struck a similar tone.

"Although we needed no reminder of the ever-increasing dangers along our southern border, this tragedy serves as stark notice that the threats facing all who serve in protecting our state and nation are real and are increasing on a daily basis," Brewer said.

Terry, a native of the Detroit area, served in the Marines and as a police officer in the Michigan cities of Ecorse and Lincoln Park before joining the Border Patrol in 2007. He wasn't married and didn't have any children. He is survived by his mother, father, a brother and two sisters.

Terry's older sister, Michelle Terry-Balogh, told The Associated Press from Flat Rock, Mich., that her brother loved his job. "It was his life," she said. "He said it was very dangerous, but he loved what he did and wanted to make a difference."

By Amanda Lee Myers

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Crime Homeland Security Immigration