In the year since the friendly-fire death of Border Patrol Agent Nick Ivie, there has been plenty of finger-pointing and misinformation about the case, Ivie’s family says.
But the FBI still hasn’t released a full report of the investigation — and despite initial reports that Ivie apparently fired first, Ron Colburn, former national deputy chief of the Border Patrol who is familiar with the investigation, said it remains inconclusive.
Colburn, who retired in 2009 and is president of the Border Patrol Foundation, has been briefed on the reports from the Border Patrol Critical Incident Team, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI.
The little bits and pieces that have been released in the past year don’t tell the whole story, said Chris Ivie, the oldest of five siblings.
“It makes it seem Nick made a mistake that cost him his life,” he said. “We don’t feel that’s the case.”
The family wants more details of the tragic event to be made public.
Throwaway statements “alluding to an agency that shoots first and asks questions later are unfair to Nick and the agency,” said Colburn, a close friend of the Ivie family who considered Nick to be a nephew.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General recently released a report recommending improvements to training and to the tracking of use-of-force allegations.
The report was requested last year by 16 members of Congress concerned with the case of Anastasio Hernandez, 42, who died after being shocked several times with a stun gun at San Diego’s San Ysidro border crossing in May 2010.
Lawmakers said they were concerned the incident is part of a larger cultural problem at the department. At least 19 people have been reported killed by Border Patrol agents since 2010.
About a week later, DHS said it would test new dashboard cameras and overhaul basic training for new agents.
After Ivie’s death, Customs and Border Protection Joint Field Commander Jeffrey Self read a short statement in a news conference and then left without taking questions.
“We have much to learn and conclude from this incident,” Self said. “I ask for the public’s patience and understanding during this difficult time.”
CBP has not commented since.
Art Del Cueto, president of the local Border Patrol union, said nothing changed after the shooting.
“It was just an accident that happened,” he said. “It’s sad we lost one of our own. That’s what it comes down to.”
In Ivie’s case, communication and familiarity with the area was crucial to how the events developed, Colburn said.
During training, agents learn about the areas they will be patrolling and their nicknames. They’re also provided with maps and GPS systems.
“But none of that mattered,” del Cueto said. “We still lost an agent.”
Sean Chapman, an attorney who represented the agent who shot Ivie, said communication was an issue brought up in the case.
“Communication problems are a big problem in the field,” said Chapman, who has represented other Border Patrol agents.
“The radio system they have is inadequate,” he said. In some areas, “when they are calling for help or trying to locate another agent, they can’t do it because there’s no radio signal.”
As instructor in the Border Patrol’s horse patrol, Ivie often rode in that rugged area. He even helped install the sensor that went off that night. But, according to Colburn, the other two agents said in interviews they were not as familiar with it.
The agency, Colburn said, needs to continue to look at communication, assess and advise agents on “tracking positions of each other, communicating well under the dark of night.”
Being able to track agents through electronic GPS, or blue force tracking, could also play a key role in the future in Border Patrol agents’ operations, he said.
After reviewing the case reports and talking to people in the field, here is Colburn’s take on the events that led to Ivie’s death:
Late on the night of Oct. 1, 2012, Ivie responded to an unattended ground sensor that had been activated near a saddle in the back of a canyon known to agents as a high-trafficking area.
Two other Border Patrol agents — a man and a woman who haven’t been identified — also responded from a different direction.
The male agent was having problems with his radio, so the female agent behind him was communicating their position with Ivie.
11:55 p.m.: The female agent says on the radio they are still driving. They might be coming up a certain trail that comes over the backside of the mountain.
That path would take them to the ridgeline on top of the mountain. From there, the agents would have to walk around the rim of the canyon for 30 to 40 minutes to get to the saddle near the sensor.
Ivie recognizes the trail and reports he’s at the bottom of the canyon.
1:00 a.m.: “I am still working my way up to the saddle. I was checking some of the washes down below, haven’t come up with anything yet,” Ivie tells the agents over the radio.
“10-4,” message received, the female agent responds.
1:21 a.m.: “Did you guys make it up to that ridge? Did you come up with anything?” Ivie asks.
“We are about a tenth of a mile out,” the female agent responds.
“10-4. I just made it up to the saddle. I have some stuff coming down the trail. It looked kind of older, but it’s hard to tell,” Ivie says.
1:24 a.m.: Ivie tells them he found footprints of two suspects heading south.
1:28 a.m.: “Shots fired” is called on the radio, seven minutes after the two agents said they were a tenth of a mile out.
That was the key moment to how the rest of the events unfolded, Colburn said. While Ivie thought they were still 30 to 40 minutes out, the two agents were actually less than 10 minutes away from the sensor.
The male agent had a GPS with the location of the sensor programmed in it, but he wasn’t communicating with Ivie.
In the dark of the night, the male agent saw someone rise up from the ground and make a motion as if throwing a blanket off his shoulders and begin shooting at him.
“Hey, hey, hey!” or “Stop, stop, stop!” he yelled as he began to retreat before he returned fire.
The male agent was grazed in the ankle and hit once in the buttocks.
He called the Brian A. Terry Border Patrol station and said he believed he had just been involved in a “friendly fire” shooting.
But the female agent said she saw three or four people sitting where Ivie was and heard people speak in Spanish.
There was no physical evidence that other people were there.
Three Mexican nationals were discovered and arrested within a few hours of the incident, about 1.5 miles south from where the incident occurred. They were walking back toward Mexico.
Two others were located by Mexican law enforcement authorities on the Mexican side of the border fence, but they couldn’t be connected to the shooting.
The physical evidence doesn’t show who fired first, Colburn said.
The female agent said she doesn’t know, and the male agent said Ivie fired first.
“I don’t believe that Nick did anything wrong that night,” Colburn said. “The complex circumstances such as radio communications, knowledge of key terrain-feature nicknames, dark of night, logical presumptions made … built an untenable scenario.”
It was simply a tragic accident, said Chris Ivie.
“I don’t believe anybody really is at fault,” he said. “Sometimes things just happen.”
The family visited the Naco station last week to commemorate Ivie.
The Border Patrol named a new horse facility after him and built an archway with his name on it, Chris Ivie said.
Nick Ivie’s two daughters, Raigan and Presley, together with their mother, Christy, cut the yellow ribbon.
His horse and companion, Mouse, was the first to walk through it.
Today, Ivie would have turned 32.
“We’ll get together and share some good times and tears,” said Chris Ivie. “I imagine it will be that way forever as long as we are here.”