A Department of Homeland Security pilot lied about using his helicopter in 2005 to force two would-be illegal immigrants back into Mexico as they attempted to cross the Rio Grande on inner tubes, an action that resulted in the drowning of one of the individuals, a federal prosecutor told jurors on Monday.
James Peters faces four counts of making false statements to investigators looking into the death of Carlos Delgadillo Martinez, a Mexican national.
Prosecutors told jurors during opening statements in Peters' trial that the 41-year-old lied about taking part in a Dec. 14, 2005 incident near a bridge in Laredo, Texas. They accuse Peters of flying his helicopter low over the Rio Grande in an attempt to force Delgadillo and another person, who authorities say were trying to illegally cross into the U.S., back to Mexico.
"He flew over them, hovered over them," said prosecutor Ruben Perez.
Investigators say the force of the turbulence from the low flying helicopter's rotor made Delgadillo lose his grip on an inner tube. His body was found later that day near the bridge.
Perez said a video from a Border Patrol pole camera will show that Peters' helicopter flew below the bridge and hovered over the water on the day of the drowning.
According to the indictment, internal radio transmissions indicate Peters told a Border Patrol agent he was going to try to make the individuals "go back."
"He lied and we are going to prove that to you," Perez said.
But Thomas Berg, Peters' attorney, told jurors his client didn't lie to investigators but that they misunderstood him when he was initially questioned about the incident a month after it happened. Berg said Peters had to go back and review records about whether he had flown near the bridge on that day.
Berg said that on the day of the drowning, Peters responded to a call from Border Patrol agents who were dealing with smugglers near the bridge in Laredo.
"It appeared people were in the water. What happened to them after that, (Peters) doesn't know because he left," Berg said.
Berg said Peters' helicopter is designed to fly low to the ground but that the aircraft was never closer than 100 feet to the bridge on the day of the drowning.
Berg said responding to such calls was routine for Peters.
"Why would he be lying about an incident if there was nothing significant about it?" he said.
Peters, who was indicted in January, has pleaded not guilty and faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
Peters, who is currently stationed in Maine, has worked for Homeland Security since 1997, becoming a helicopter pilot in 2003.
The trial was expected to last several days.