When Border Patrol officials in San Diego learned last June about circumstances surrounding a dead body deposited at the county medical examiner's office, they sent over an agent with a radiation detector.
"It was an out-of-the-ordinary situation, where you had an individual from the Middle East who was found along our border," said Raleigh Leonard, spokesman for the Border Patrol's San Diego sector. The man had been dropped off at a local hospital, Leonard told me, "by people who said that he had crossed illegally into the United States and was subsequently found . . . throwing up blood."
He was 21-year-old Youseff Balaghi. He had come from faraway Lebanon to the border near Tijuana.
"He was suffering from some very serious illness that no one at that particular time could identify," said Leonard. "He died. He was turned over to the San Diego County Medical Examiner's office. They called us."
"We did not perform an autopsy," said Dr. Jonathan Lucas, deputy medical examiner for San Diego County. The man's family, Lucas told me, refused consent for the procedure on religious grounds, but blood and urine samples were drawn for standard toxicology tests. These showed nothing particularly unusual, and the cause of death was listed as "undetermined."
By the time the Border Patrol arrived with its radiation detector, the body was gone but the blood and urine samples remained.
"At that time," said Leonard, "many of us were looking into information regarding dirty bombs.
"We had been studying and attending classes ever since September 11th in regards to terrorist-related activity so we are very keen on terrorist-type weapons, tactics, dirty bombs, different behavioral patterns, but also some of the sicknesses that are attributed to radiation poisoning," he said.
Fortunately, the detector showed Balaghi was clean.
That's the good news.
The bad news: Balaghi wasn't the only Middle Eastern illegal who slipped across our Mexican border.
Salim Boughader-Mucharrafille, a Tijuana restaurateur, conducted a regular business running Middle Easterners into California.
Last December, U.S. Attorney Carol C. Lam of San Diego unsealed an indictment charging Boughader, a Mexican citizen, and two other Mexicans, Patricia Serrano-Valdez and Jose Alvarez Duenas, with alien smuggling.
An affidavit filed in federal court by Senior Border Patrol Agent John R. Korkin said an investigation "positively identified at least 80 Lebanese nationals that have been, or were in the process of being, smuggled into the U.S. from November 19, 1999 to the present by a smuggling organization of affiliated individuals headed and coordinated by Boughader."
Boughader, Serrano and Duenas all cut plea bargains. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Skerlos, who prosecuted the case, said Serrano ran a safe house for Boughader in San Diego and Duenas was a "coyote" who guided aliens across the border. Boughader, Skerlos said, admitted in court to smuggling more than 100 people. Neither Serrano nor Duenas, he said, were involved in the incident that resulted in the death of Balaghi, but Boughader pleaded guilty in Balaghi's case to smuggling an alien "resulting in death."
I asked Skerlos whether any of the Middle Easterners smuggled by Boughader had ties to terrorist organizations. "No comment," he said.
Boughader's organization, said Korkin's affidavit, "employs several individuals and co-conspirators in various countries including Lebanon."
As a result of his plea bargain, Boughader will serve only one year and one day in prison. Hopefully, he has been induced to help investigators track his clients.
Since December, the San Diego Union-Tribune has run two reports revealing that Balaghi's remains were tested for radiation.
I asked Leonard how often the Border Patrol in his sector intercepts Middle Eastern illegals. "It happens," he said. "It's not by any means unusual. But it isn't every day."
"Radiation detectors," he also told me, "are being issued out to the Border Patrol agents. We are in the process of putting together a standard operations procedure packet, telling agents how to operate them . . . how they will be used, where they will be used. As soon as that is completed the devices will be issued out to the agents, absolutely.
"Just one more thing," said Leonard. "We're out there securing and protecting our nation's borders, and we take these terrorist and terrorist-related threats very seriously, and we're working hard to protect and secure our nation's borders."
That's a certainty. Law enforcement in San Diego -- from the Border Patrol, to the federal prosecutors to the county medical examiner -- are doing their best. But as long as Middle Eastern aliens keep sneaking in from Mexico, it is an equal certainty these officers are not getting all the support they need from policymakers in Washington.