By Paul M. Ingram
SIERRA VISTA, Arizona (Reuters) - Border Patrol agents on horseback led a public funeral procession in Arizona on Monday for an agent shot dead near the Mexico border in an apparent friendly fire incident, as his family said it sought healing for all involved.
Nicholas Ivie was killed before daybreak on October 2 as he responded to a tripped ground sensor in a well-known smuggling corridor near Naco, Arizona. A second agent was shot and wounded, while a third was unharmed.
The FBI has said there were "strong preliminary indications" that Ivie's death was the result of friendly fire in an accidental shooting in which only Border Patrol agents were involved. It has released scant details on the circumstances.
Ivie, 30, was the fourth Border Patrol agent to die in violent circumstances in less than two years in Arizona, and his death heightened concern about border security in a state at the forefront of the national immigration debate in a presidential election year.
"Our best wishes and prayers continue for the other agents involved in the incident, that they may experience healing and peace. We honor all who serve in the Border Patrol, carrying out an extremely difficult task under harsh conditions," the family said in a statement issued late on Sunday.
"We are grateful for all the efforts by so many to thoroughly investigate what took place during that early morning tragedy."
National Border Patrol Council president George McCubbin said the incident occurred when Ivie, believing he had run into an armed smuggler, opened fire, the Arizona Republic newspaper reported. The wounded agent returned fire, as did a third agent, McCubbin said.
"It's at night and you have more than one unit responding to the report," the paper quoted McCubbin as saying. "We are running into canyons and saddles and down mountains, and you don't know what you are going to find down there."
A Cochise County Sheriff's spokeswoman said Ivie and the two other agents, who had communicated with one another, had come from different directions and that the two agents had taken defensive postures that were "interpreted as aggressive."
"They knew they were all in the same area," spokeswoman Carol Capas told Reuters. "It's obviously a tragic accident due to the circumstances with what appears to be friendly fire."
On Monday, as details of the incident continued to trickle out, a horse-drawn carriage carried Ivie's coffin through the streets of the small town of Sierra Vista to a Mormon church for funeral services. Ivie's horse, Mouse, also took part in the procession, mounted with an empty saddle.
Later, Border Patrol officers in uniforms and wearing white gloves carried Ivie's body to a white hearse marked with two small U.S. flags and put the coffin, draped in a U.S. flag, inside.
Family members of Ivie sat in the front row at the services alongside the agent wounded in the shooting, who was embraced by Ivie's father. Ivie had learned Spanish on a two-year Mormon mission in Mexico City and lived in Sierra Vista with his wife and two young daughters.
During an emotional eulogy after the funeral procession, Ivie's brother, Joel, said the slain agent may have placed the sensor that he was responding to when he was killed. Ivie was expected to be buried on Thursday in Utah.
"He died in a beautiful place," Joel Ivie said. "He knew that network of trails on the mountain."
(Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston; Desking by G Crosse)