First came the crash, reverberating off the walls of an Ahwatukee community like a “mini atom bomb,” then a barrage of gunfire shattered the desert morning calm.
Neighbors scrambled for cover as rounds ripped through metal and cut into picnic tables. One woman hit her bedroom floor and called 911. Workers at nearby schools and day care centers worried whether they should go on lockdown.
“It was a war zone,” said Frank Guy, who was in his yard when the shooting started. “I haven’t heard that much rapid fire in that short of a period of time since I was in Vietnam 50 years ago.”
Federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations, a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were pursuing a suspected human smuggler they’d been tracking for days.
In three unmarked pickups, four plainclothes members of HSI’s Special Response Team followed the suspect’s SUV as it exited Interstate 10 south of Phoenix, took an unexpected turn and headed into Ahwatukee.
As the convoy barreled through the neighborhood, the agents decided to conduct a high-risk maneuver intended to force the SUV to stop.
Instead, within seconds, an HSI pickup lay atop a downed tree halfway through a garden block wall, the driver of the SUV was dead from multiple gunshots, and her four passengers, including the alleged smuggler and a teenage girl, were wounded or injured.
The April 11, 2019, shootout in Ahwatukee, although extreme, was not an isolated incident.
Since 2011, there have been at least 13 shootings involving HSI agents – most in 2018-19, according to an investigation by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism. It’s not clear how many HSI shootings have occurred in the U.S. because ICE officials refused to answer questions and the agency’s data is not publicly available.
The Howard Center also found that at least five people had been killed and 11 others, including a 4-year-old boy, had been wounded or injured by HSI agent shootings, which often occurred in parking lots outside strip malls or restaurants.
All but three of the victims were black, Hispanic or Native American. One suspect in California was shot in the back and an innocent man there was mistakenly shot at after dropping off a child at school. Another man in Chicago, who was not a suspect, was wounded in his home, the Howard Center found.
HSI was created in 2010 and is the main investigative unit of the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of ICE. Its more than 7,000 agents have broad legal authority to investigate an array of cross-border crimes, from child pornography and human smuggling to art theft and financial crimes.
Yet its operations are largely overshadowed by the department’s detention units and immigration roundups.
Federal shooting incidents have escaped the kind of scrutiny faced by state and local law enforcement officers involved in shootings.
Experts say that’s no accident: Federal agencies have hoarded their shooting data, making it nearly impossible for independent analyses of their policies and practices.
“A lot of (local police) departments are transparent,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal justice expert who has studied high-risk police activities for more than three decades. “The federal government chooses not to be.”
What little is known about HSI operations comes largely from Department of Homeland Security inspector-general reports, which have for following an outdated use of force policy from 2004. Auditors have also faulted Homeland Security for not doing enough to minimize the risk of improper use of force.
The reports have also noted problems with training, challenges that were exacerbated in 2017 after Homeland Security hired 15,000 new agents and officers – 10,000 alone for ICE.
In every shooting examined by the Howard Center, HSI agents said they fired in self-defense. Internal investigations, if they occur, are not made public. No agent has been charged in any of the shootings, though one related civil rights lawsuit was settled out of court. Two other federal lawsuits are pending.
Common themes include HSI agents calling 911 for help after a shooting, refusing to answer questions at the scene, leaving without conducting walk-throughs with local police and giving statements only days later with their lawyers present.
Officials from ICE and HSI refused repeated requests from Howard Center reporters for interviews or to answer written questions.
The Phoenix Police Department released records on the Ahwatukee shooting, including 911 calls, body cam videos, agent and suspect interviews and thousands of crime scene photos.
However, one piece of evidence that was released – recorded sounds of the shootout picked up by a nearby home security system – was not analyzed by police.
A review of that recording, conducted for the Howard Center by two national ballistics experts, found that handguns like those used by HSI agents were the first to fire, contradicting the official narrative that the “bad guy” shot first.
Phoenix police officials would not publicly discuss their investigation, although privately some officers were critical of HSI’s tactics.
“It’s a major concern, the accountability of people who have the power to deprive us of life and liberty,” said George Kirkham, criminology professor-emeritus at Florida State University who has consulted on more than 1,500 law enforcement cases. “It’s an honorable profession, and the people who do it do a tough and important job. But they must be held to account.”
Frank Guy was pruning bushes when he heard the siren. Climbing up on his garden bench to peer over the retaining wall, he saw unmarked trucks trailing an SUV.
A car chase, he recalled thinking.
“As soon as I got down, I heard this huge crash,” Guy said. “It was like a mini atom bomb. It looked like a mushroom cloud of trees and branches and leaves and dust and concrete.”
And then the shooting started.
His wife pleaded for him to come inside to escape the gunfire. His adult stepdaughter dropped to the floor and dialed 911.
“There’s gunfire, there’s an accident,” a breathless Michelle McMaster told the emergency operator.
“How many shots?” the dispatcher inquired.
“How many shots? Hundreds!” McMaster shouted.
The chaos that unfolded about 400 feet away was not part of the plan.
Since late March, Homeland Security Investigations agents had been tracking Warren Jose, a suspect in an alleged immigrant smuggling operation out of Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation along the Arizona-Mexico border.
Agent Chad Lakosky obtained an arrest warrant on April 9 and began planning Jose’s capture.
Because Jose had an arrest record that included allegations of human smuggling, aggravated assault and illegal weapons possession, Lakosky said he called for help from HSI’s Special Response Team, a SWAT unit. Response team agents said they were warned that Jose had a history of not complying with law enforcement and would likely be armed.
Agents planned to arrest Jose on April 11 in the parking lot of a hotel along I-10 south of Phoenix, where his Chevrolet Trailblazer had been spotted the day before. But instead of staying the night, Jose had returned to the border after getting a call about two migrants in Sells needing transport to Phoenix.
By this point, Jose later told Phoenix police, he was too tired to drive alone and called some friends from the reservation for help. Valentina Valenzuela and Theresa Medina Thomas had been out late partying in Sells and agreed to join Jose on the drive back to Phoenix.
Around 4 a.m., the group picked up the two migrants. One of them, Maria Martinez-Luna, 17, later told police that Jose had an AK-47 lying on the front-seat console but had told her not to be afraid because the gun wasn’t for her.
As they drove north, Jose and the two women smoked cigarettes and drugs and passed around a bottle of Bacardi rum, music blaring on the radio.
“We were jamming out,” Jose would later say. Drug paraphernalia was found scattered about the SUV after the shooting.
A license plate reader picked up the Trailblazer as it approached I-10, alerting the HSI agents that their suspect was nearing. Midway through the trip, Medina Thomas took over the wheel so Jose could sleep, he told police.
Agents had expected Jose to drive back to the hotel where he’d been spotted the day before. But instead of turning east after exiting the interstate, Medina Thomas turned west and headed toward Ahwatukee.
As agents scrambled to catch up, team leader Richard Mortensen devised a plan.
Agents believed the Trailblazer had only two occupants, though they later acknowledged they couldn’t see through the vehicle’s dark tinted windows. They were convinced the occupants knew they were being followed.
In statements to police, the HSI agents said the suspect vehicle had made erratic lane changes indicative of “counter surveillance” measures and a brief stop in a parking lot, during which they thought they saw a silhouette turn to look at them.
Inside the Trailblazer, tensions were rising.
Jose said he awoke to Medina Thomas and Valenzuela talking about a truck that was following them. Medina Thomas told Jose she thought it was “a narc.”
A groggy Jose looked at the unmarked truck and replied, “Nah, that’s not a cop. You would know if it’s a cop.”
If anything, Jose initially thought, it might be a rival smuggler. He told police it’s common for other smugglers to steal migrants as they were being transported and keep the payoff for themselves.
Jose told the women not to worry and went back to sleep.
Meanwhile, Mortensen instructed his fellow agents to prepare for a “pinch” maneuver. The three F-150s would speed up to surround the Trailblazer, then force it to stop.
Agents twice tried but failed to execute the maneuver as the Trailblazer and pickups headed north on 48th Street, getting blocked first by another vehicle and then by a construction zone.
Finally, Mortensen decided, “there’s not a lot of civilian vehicles around, let’s conduct the pinch while moving,” an HSI agent later told police.
With unmarked HSI trucks in front of and behind the suspects, Mortensen pulled his blue F-150 to the outside lane next to the Trailblazer. Agents were instructed to activate their lights and sirens, although only the truck behind the Trailblazer did, the police report said.
As the truck in front slowed, the Trailblazer swerved several times into Mortensen’s truck, agents said, causing him to lose control of the pickup, which plowed through the residential block wall.
The Trailblazer then hit the street curb and spun around before coming to rest facing the wrong way. Inside the vehicle, chaos erupted and someone yelled, “Police!”
HSI agent Marcus Camacho was now facing the Trailblazer, and he said he rammed his truck into it to prevent the suspects from fleeing. The military veteran said he then began “taking rounds” from what sounded like an AK-47 and noticed his shoulder was bleeding. He jumped out of his truck, crouched behind the open driver’s door and began firing his Glock 19 pistol at the Trailblazer.
By that point, HSI agent Jeff Hemphill had pulled alongside Camacho, also facing the suspects’ vehicle. As he was getting out, he said he heard “rounds go through my windshield.” Hemphill dropped to the ground and radioed “Shots fired.”
After his truck crashed through the garden wall, Mortensen said he “immediately opened” his door, saw the Trailblazer bumper-to-bumper with an HSI truck and heard gunfire. He ran toward the scene and took cover behind a tree across from the SUV’s driver door, he said.
“It has dark tinted windows, hard to see in, but I can, through the windshield, I can see the silhouette of a rifle,” Mortensen told police five days later. “The rifle appeared to look like an AK-47, and I could see the rifle coming back and forth as if someone was shooting it.”
“I knew they were shooting the rifle, and the direction it was pointed was at the direction of the officers that were there on scene,” Mortensen said.
The agent said he opened fire on the driver of the Trailblazer with his Sig Sauer .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol and emptied at least three magazines before ceasing fire.
Bryan Altieri, a passenger in Mortensen’s truck, struggled to get out of the crashed truck because his door was partly blocked by the downed tree. But once out, he said, he grabbed his M4 rifle and ran toward the shooting.
“There was lots, a lot of gunfire going on at that point,” Altieri told police. “The vehicle was extremely, extremely difficult to see inside.”
Altieri said the Trailblazer’s doors were closed and that bullets appeared to be coming from inside, closer to the passenger’s side of the windshield.
Looking through the optic of his rifle, Altieri thought he saw “the right arm of the driver extended out at an angle towards the passenger side windshield.” He fired two to three rounds at the driver, he said.
“I’d also like to note that at this point I actually thought the driver was still Jose,” Altieri said.
More than 100 rounds were fired in just over 30 seconds, about 80 percent of them from agents’ guns, Phoenix Police found.
Inside the Trailblazer, Medina Thomas slumped dead in the driver’s seat from three bullets to the head and four to her neck and shoulder, the Medical Examiner said. Jose, in the front passenger seat, was gravely wounded by several bullets, including one to his head.
The backseat occupants – Valenzuela and the two migrants – huddled on the floorboard, injured to varying degrees.
One of the paramedics examining Medina Thomas’ body noted she had been shot through the eye, adding, “That’s a kill shot.” Another paramedic muttered “savage.”
Curious residents ventured out for a look after the gunfire subsided and police sirens started sounding through the neighborhood.
By that point, HSI agents had pulled Jose’s limp body from the Trailblazer and rolled him onto the street, face up. An AK-47 was on the ground nearby, police body cam video showed.
“The scene looked like chaos because there was a body laying in the street,” said Nick Dalton, who lives a few blocks from the scene.
Dalton said he thought Jose was dead because at first no one was tending to him while HSI agents were being loaded into ambulances and driven away.
The front end of the agent’s truck lay halfway in a backyard, surrounded by tree limbs and other debris.
Several residents found bullets in their yards, on their roofs and even lodged in the side of one home. Many were rattled by the shooting and unwilling to speak about it, even months later.
“Why would they do it here?” asked Dalton, who was troubled by the fact that he didn’t hear sirens before the shootout. “I would assume that they would try and do it somewhere a little bit safer.”
Dalton said he’d never heard of HSI until after the shooting, when he Googled it.
If someone in an unmarked vehicle had tried to pull him over, saying they were with HSI, he said, “I would tell them no, get the Phoenix police.”
He added that it was “kind of scary” that relatively unknown federal agencies “have the right and the power to enforce the law with physical and lethal force.”
Four days after being shot in the head, Warren Jose sat in a Phoenix Police interrogation room.
“Warren, why did you fire at them?” Det. Matthew Hamas asked.
“When I heard the gunshots,” Jose said, “I may have, I may have just shot back.” Investigators later determined Jose had fired 24 rounds from a sawed-off AK-47.
“Hamas pressed on: “There were a bunch of witnesses and everybody saw you fire first. So, I’m trying to understand why.”
“If anything, I had to be scared,” Jose offered.
“You don’t remember who fired first?” Hamas asked later.
“I don’t remember who fired first,” Jose replied.
Understanding who shot first was a main goal of the Phoenix Police Department’s investigation.
HSI, in a federal criminal complaint filed the day after the shooting, said Jose “began opening fire on agents with an AK47-type assault rifle, striking multiple vehicles. Agents returned fire.”
But, despite a months-long investigation, local police and prosecutors did not determine who shot first.
Agents told Phoenix police that they feared for their lives because the Trailblazer had been used as a “weapon” to ram one of their trucks, sending it careening through a cement block wall.
However, during the agents’ interviews with police five days later – with their lawyers present – none explicitly said Jose was the first to fire. And police didn’t ask.
Mortensen said he heard gunfire coming from where an HSI truck crashed head-on into the Trailblazer.
Agent Marcus Camacho, whose truck rammed the SUV, said he could not see inside the vehicle, but “as soon as we collide, I start taking rounds.”
“I popped my door open, and I’m receiving rounds. Through the door and all around me, and I can see them exiting the SUV’s front windshield,” he said.
Agent Jeff Hemphill, who pulled up alongside Camacho, said gunshots went through his windshield.
Agent Bryan Altieri, who was injured in the crash of Mortensen’s truck, told police he heard gunshots. “Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,” he said. “And I hear someone yell ‘Shots fired.’”
According to police interview transcripts, none of the other witnesses to the shooting could say with certainty who shot first.
Valenzuela, the friend of the slain driver, was interviewed eight hours after the shooting.
When Detective Hamas asked her who shot first, she said she “just assumed” it was Jose. But when pressed on whether she first heard shots from inside or outside the SUV, Valenzuela broke down.
“It didn’t seem real, I didn’t know,” Valenzuela said.
Valenzuela said she threw herself over the 17-year-old migrant sitting next to her in the backseat. That girl, Maria Martinez-Luna, told police she didn’t see how the shooting started.
She was interviewed by Hamas, with HSI agent Angel Hernandez translating to and from Spanish.
“At any time did you see that he (Jose) grabbed the gun and began to use it?” Hernandez asked.
“No,” Martinez-Luna responded. Hernandez translated her response as “She doesn’t know.”
Phoenix police did not interview the other migrant in the Trailblazer, Genaro Jiménez-Sánchez, even though federal prosecutors detained him as a “material witness” in their case against Jose. In a court filing, Jose’s lawyer said Jiménez-Sánchez ducked down after the collision with the HSI truck and “heard but did not see gunshots.”
Although Phoenix police released their investigative report and most of the evidence collected, they deferred all questions to HSI, which declined to speak with reporters or take written questions.
Among the crime-scene evidence released by police was a recording from a home security system half a mile from the shooting scene that captured the sounds of the vehicle chase, crash and gunfight. The Howard Center asked two nationally renowned audio forensics and ballistics experts to review the recording.
Both said a handgun, as carried by the agents and not an AK-47 rifle was the first to fire.
“With a high degree of scientific certainty, the first shot fired was a Sig Sauer .40 caliber shot,” said Steven Beck, an audio forensics and acoustics expert who worked as an FBI scientific consultant for 16 years.
“That very first gunshot … it’s very prominent,” said Becks. Using a specialized software package built for analyzing audio, he was able to look at each gunshot’s sound waveform to determine the differences between them.
“It’s quite loud and had all the characteristics that were consistent with the Sig Sauer,” Beck said.
Mortensen was the only one involved in the shootout who carried a Sig Sauer, according to police.
The audio recording also was reviewed by Rob Maher of Montana State University, who has authored more than a dozen reports and extensively researched gunshot acoustics.
Using a different computer program than Beck, Maher distinguished each gunshot by looking at its varying amplitudes and frequencies.
Maher reached a conclusion similar to Beck’s, stating his “subjective impression is that the first few shots are from a handgun … based on the short duration of the muzzle blast sound.”
The County Attorney’s Office reviewed the police department’s investigation.
In an August letter to the HSI special agent in charge for Phoenix, A. Scott Brown, the County Attorney’s Office criticized HSI agents for not following standard officer-involved shooting protocols, including refusing to give statements right away or conducting a walk-through of the scene.
Prosecutors recommended “no criminal charges at this time” but noted that they had been forced to “rely upon secondary sources,” which limited “the degree to which involved agents can be fully and confidently cleared of any wrongdoing.”
“There is insufficient evidence to rebut the involved agents’ subsequent statements of reasonable belief of imminent use of deadly physical force,” the letter said, concluding, “It is of great mutual benefit to retain the public’s confidence in reviewing incidents where loss of life occurs.”
Policing experts have said law enforcement officers should not put themselves in positions where vehicles can effectively become weapons and then use that fact as justification for responding with deadly force.
Kirkham, the Florida criminologist who once worked as a police officer, called the actions of HSI agents leading up to the shooting “deadly” and “reckless.”
Given that agents couldn’t see inside the Trailblazer and suspected its occupants might be armed and dangerous, or transporting hostages or innocents, he said they should have used extra caution.
For example, they could have asked Phoenix police for help, such as blocking traffic up ahead or deploying stop strips to destroy the Trailblazer’s tires.
“The tragedy is in a situation like this, when you start doing cops and robbers and doing like something out of a TV outtake, people get hurt, people get killed,” Kirkham said.
Medina Thomas’ body sat in the Trailblazer in the middle of the street for nearly 12 hours before it was transported to the medical examiner’s office.
Only later, after an autopsy and toxicology report, was it revealed that she had near-fatal levels of methamphetamine in her body, which could have explained much of her driving behavior.
Dr. Richard Stripp, a toxicology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who analyzed the toxicology report, said, “The effect of methamphetamine would be related to increased risk-taking behavior, more aggressive behavior, potentially erratic driving.”
Medina Thomas was on supervised probation for previous charges related to human smuggling.
Her mother, Tina Juan, said Medina Thomas “went downhill” after the death of her paternal grandmother.
Juan now is raising her eldest child’s 12-year-old daughter. She and members of her family plan to visit the site in Ahwatukee on the first anniversary of the shooting.
“They took a big part of our family,” Juan said. “They took a big chunk of each of our hearts. We will never be the same. Our family is broken.”
Warren Jose, meanwhile, remains in federal custody somewhere in Arizona; the U.S. Marshals Service would not say where, citing the safety of the inmate and agents guarding him. He faces 12 charges, mostly related to the April 11 shootout.
Valentina Valenzuela is in custody, facing charges of transportation of illegal immigrants for profit.
The two undocumented immigrants in the Trailblazer – Maria Martinez-Luna and Genaro Jiménez-Sánchez – were detained by the U.S. Marshals, according to court records.
Martinez-Luna requested a work permit “and the Government is anticipating granting that request,” court records show.
Jiménez-Sánchez, who had a bullet lodged in his chest from the shooting, is being held in federal custody until he can testify about what happened.
Defense lawyers have sought copies of HSI policies and procedures, contending in court filings “that the intervening acts of HSI agents, such as colliding with Mr. Jose’s vehicle and shooting Ms. Medina-Thomas, were the actual causative acts of her death.”
Prosecutors called that “a ‘fishing expedition’ with the hope of obtaining evidence to distract from the actions of the defendants in this case.”
Experts say many local police departments have undergone reforms to improve police accountability and enhance community trust.
Michael White, a professor of criminology and criminal justice and associate director of Arizona State University’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety, said local policing reforms resulted from public awareness and pressure for change.
“It’s been the persistence and the number of controversial shootings that has kind of just created this situation where many chiefs felt like they had no choice but to adopt these recommendations,” White said. “What it would take for that level of scrutiny to reach federal agencies? I’m not sure.”