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Case Style: United States of America v. Carlos Hernandez-Palma and Fernando Arment-Romero
Case Number: 14CR02766-CAB
Judge: Cathy A. Bencivengo
Court: United States District Court for the Southern District of California (San Diego County)
Plaintiff's Attorney: Alexandra Foster
Description: SAN DIEGO – Two alien smugglers who left a pregnant woman to die in the rugged Otay Mountain wilderness during an ill-fated border-crossing attempt were sentenced in federal court today for actions that ultimately resulted in her death.
With the woman’s widower and three children in the courtroom, U.S. District Judge Cathy A. Bencivengo sentenced Carlos Hernandez-Palma to 84 months in prison, and Fernando Armenta-Romero to 57 months. Hernandez and Armenta pleaded guilty in October 2014 to Bringing in an Illegal Alien Resulting in Death and Bringing in an Illegal Alien for Financial Gain.
According to court records, the woman’s husband, Baltazar Razo-Barreto, repeatedly pleaded with the smugglers to use their cellular phone to call for assistance when his wife became gravely ill in the craggy, remote terrain. The smugglers refused. Ultimately the husband was forced to leave his wife, Jaqueline Capistran-Ochoa, to seek help, and the smugglers eventually abandoned her.
“These smugglers showed a profound lack of humanity when they refused to call for help and left a dying woman alone in the middle of nowhere,” said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. “This tragic case serves as a brutal reminder that attempting to cross into the United States illegally – and putting your faith, hope and future in the hands of mercenaries - is a very dangerous proposition and not worth the gamble. My office will aggressively prosecute those who smuggle illegal aliens into the United States for financial gain, place vulnerable people in grave danger, and needlessly cause deaths.”
On or about December 29, 2013, at approximately 7:10 PM, the Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue unit responded to a report of a 32-year-old undocumented alien female abandoned in the Otay Mountain Wilderness near the U.S.-Mexico border in southeastern San Diego County. This is a rugged and isolated area, with limited access to roads and no development.
Border Patrol agents contacted the reporting party, later identified as Razo, who identified himself as the husband of the missing woman. He told the agents that Ms. Capistran had been in medical distress when he left her in the care of others while he sought help.
After an extensive search of the mountainous area over a period of two days, the husband eventually led Border Patrol agents to an area where they discovered Ms. Capistran’s body. According to the medical examiner, Ms. Capistran’s death was attributed to hyperglycemia and ketoacidosis due to diabetes mellitus and hypothermia from environmental exposure. The medical examiner reported that Ms. Capistran was pregnant and estimated the gestational age of the fetus at approximately 11 to 12 weeks.
As indicated in court documents, Mr. Razo and his wife made arrangements with the smugglers in Mexico to be brought illegally into the United States in December 2013. The smugglers identified themselves to Mr. Razo as “CARLOS” (Hernandez) and “ARMENTA.” The smugglers told Mr. Razo that they would smuggle him and Ms. Capistran into the United States in exchange for a total smuggling fee of $12,000.
During their discussion, the smugglers explained that the journey from Mexico into the United States would take 1.5 to 2 days, including frequent breaks. The smugglers added that it was not particularly arduous as the terrain was mostly flat. The smugglers told Mr. Razo that the hardest part was climbing the U.S.-Mexico border fence. Mr. Razo relayed this information to Ms. Capistran. She had developed diabetes after the birth of their second child and was on diabetes medication. They also suspected that she might be pregnant.
Before leaving Tijuana, Mexico, for their journey into the United States, the smugglers took Ms. Capistran for walks around the park to determine whether she was fit to make the trip, especially since she appeared overweight and tired. Ms. Capistran walked with the smugglers through the park, but often grew tired and repeatedly required rest stops. The smugglers argued amongst themselves as to whether she could make the smuggling trek and even tried to recruit others to replace Mr. Razo and Ms. Capistran. Despite their misgivings and given their inability to recruit anyone else willing to pay them $12,000, they decided to take a chance on Mr. Razo and Ms. Capistran. On or about December 26, 2013, Hernandez and Armenta smuggled Mr. Razo and Ms. Capistran into the United States by climbing over the U.S./Mexico boundary fence in Tijuana, Mexico.
Notwithstanding the smugglers’ description of the terrain as mostly flat, the hike was mountainous, covered with large boulders and difficult to traverse. After approximately two days, Ms. Capistran began to slow down and required more frequent rest stops. Ms. Capistran told Mr. Razo that she felt like there was water in her lungs, and she was having a hard time breathing. Soon she was unable to walk at all.
Mr. Razo repeatedly pleaded with the smugglers to seek help and to use their cellular phone. The smugglers refused. They claimed the phone did not work and that it had been destroyed. After the third day, on December 29, 2013, Ms. Capistran was unresponsive. Since the smugglers refused to seek help, Mr. Razo left his wife in the smugglers’ care and hiked into the wilderness on his own. Mr. Razo eventually was able to contact his brother. The brother picked up Mr. Razo and called 911, and dispatchers connected them to the Border Patrol for assistance.
By the time Border Patrol agents and Mr. Razo found Ms. Capistran in the Otay Mountain wilderness, it was too late. Ms. Capistran had been left to die on a trail in the mountains. The smugglers were gone. They had hiked out of the mountains two days before and called Armenta’s brother to pick them up.
In addition to the prison sentences, Judge Bencivengo ordered that CARLOS and ARMENTA each serve a term of three years of supervised release.
DEFENDANTS Case Number: 14CR02766-CAB
Fernando Armenta-Romero Age: 43
Carlos Hernandez-Palma Age: 35
Count 1: Title 18, United States Code, Section 1324 – Bringing in Illegal Alien Resulting in Death – statutory maximum of death or life imprisonment, a maximum fine of $250,000, a 5-year term of supervised release, and $100 special assessment.
Count 2: Title 18, United States Code, Section 1324 - Bringing in Illegal Alien for Financial Gain – statutory minimum of three years, statutory maximum of 10 years, a maximum fine of $250,000, a 3-year term of supervised release, and $100 special assessment.
Border Patrol - Chula Vista Intelligence Division
Outcome: See above