Investigators searching a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border for clues into the fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent face a treacherous territory that is heavily used by drug smugglers, offers many hiding places and is close enough to Mexico for traffickers to make a quick getaway.
Whoever killed Agent Nicholas Ivie and wounded another agent in the sparsely populated desert in southeastern Arizona early Tuesday may have done just that.
Those who carried out the shooting near Bisbee, probably had time to cross the border in the early-morning darkness before authorities could seal off an escape route, said George McCubbin, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing about 17,000 border patrol agents.
"I seriously doubt anybody would be laid up and hiding," he said.
Ivie and two other agents were fired upon in a rugged hilly area about five miles north of the border as they responded to an alarm that was triggered on one of the sensors that the government has installed along the border. The wounded agent was shot in the ankle and buttocks and released from the hospital after undergoing surgery. The third agent wasn't injured.
Ivie was a 30-year-old father of two who grew up in Utah and was active in the Mormon church. He has been an agent for four years.
Authorities have declined to provide other details, including what they believe prompted the shooting and whether the agents were ambushed. They suspect that more than one person fired on the agents. No arrests have been made.
The shooting occurred in an area heavily frequented by drug smugglers, though less so in recent years by illegal immigrants crossing the border, said Dave Stoddard, a retired Border Patrol agent who worked in the agency's station in the area for eight years. "You're talking about cocaine alley," Stoddard said.
The area historically has been popular with smugglers because U.S. 80 comes within several miles of the border, allowing backpack-toting smugglers to take loads of drugs to the highway for pickup by vehicles.
Yet some residents are less comfortable with the tremendous police presence that now exists in the area than they are with the more hidden illegal traffic. They include Dan Oldfield, whose home may be the closest one to the site where Ivie was killed.
"I drive into town every morning, and half the people on the road are cops, unmarked and marked," Oldfield said.
When Oldfield woke to his dogs barking early Tuesday morning and saw officers with big guns in his driveway, he did what he usually does.
"I went up and told them to get off my property," he said. "I yell at them all the time and run them off. It's crazy, the whole thing."
Others have resolved to put up with the drug-war traffic in the area despite the disruptions to rural life. Rancher Fred Giacoletti, whose family homesteaded 800 acres near the border south of Bisbee, said he feels abandoned by the federal government.
"I could move my family any time, but I haven't been able to figure out how to move these 800 acres, so I'm stuck here," he said.
The desert where the shooting occurred is dotted with creosote and other brush, hampering visibility at ground level. Gullies and ridges also provide cover for smugglers.
The area is part of the nation's busiest Border Patrol sector, which received additional agents and fencing as the federal government sought to improve border security in recent years.
On StarNet: For a video about the investigation, go to azstarnet.com/video
Reporter Tim Steller contributed to this story.