New details emerged Thursday in a high-profile smuggling prosecution when the man at the center of the case gave his side of the story.
When border-aid worker Scott Warren got back from grocery shopping in Ajo on Jan. 14, 2018, he found two men he had never seen before standing in the doorway of The Barn, a makeshift structure used by humanitarian aid groups in the area.
Warren had never met the men, one from Honduras and the other from El Salvador, or ever heard of them, but migrants regularly “stumble” out of the brush and ask for help in Ajo, Warren told a federal court jury in Tucson on Thursday.
“I said ‘Hello, who are you and what are you doing here?’” Warren testified.
The two men, Kristian Perez Villanueva, a 23-year-old citizen of El Salvador, and Jose Sacaria Goday, a 21-year-old citizen of Honduras, said they needed shelter and offered to help Warren with his groceries.
Warren, a 36-year-old volunteer with Tucson-based humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, said he let them stay at The Barn for a few days in January 2018 to recuperate from blisters, dehydration and exhaustion. They had walked most of the night through the desert after “jumping the wall,” as Perez testified earlier, at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Warren’s account of events clashed dramatically with the allegations that he was part of a smuggling conspiracy and hid two migrants from the Border Patrol. He was indicted last year on charges of conspiracy and harboring, marking the first time in more than a decade that a border-aid volunteer in Southern Arizona was charged with felony human-smuggling.
Warren spoke with Perez and Sacaria for a few minutes after meeting them, Warren testified Thursday. He then opened the main part of The Barn, invited them inside, and brought in the groceries. He put the food in the fridge and then did a remedial checkup of the two men’s vital signs and blisters. He called a doctor in Tucson and she recommended they stay off their feet for at least 24 hours, Warren said.
Over the course of the next two days, Warren spent about four hours total at The Barn. He slept at his home a few miles away and didn’t interact with Perez and Sacaria on Jan. 15, he testified. He woke up the next day and drove to the Tohono O’odham Community College near Sells to teach a class. He didn’t get back to Ajo until the evening.
On Jan. 17, Warren spent the day at home preparing to teach classes as the semester began, he told the jury. He was so removed from what was happening with Perez and Sacaria at The Barn, Warren said he “didn’t know for certain whether they were there or not.”
As the evening approached, Warren went to The Barn and started building a campfire for a group of students from Flagstaff who were on their way to Ajo after observing federal court in Tucson. But instead of a group of students interested in learning about the border, a “convoy” of Border Patrol agents and Pima County sheriff’s deputies rolled up to The Barn, Warren said.
The agents handcuffed Warren “within 90 seconds to two minutes” after arriving on the property, Warren testified.
Agents testified earlier in the trial that they had set up surveillance of The Barn earlier in the day and saw Warren standing with Perez and Sacaria outside The Barn. Warren was pointing to nearby mountains in what agents believed was an attempt to guide them around a Border Patrol checkpoint on nearby State Route 85.
On Thursday, Warren told the jury he was telling the two men that if they got injured or lost, they would need to find their way to State Route 85 to get help. The highway is the only paved road for miles around and runs between two mountains. It was “critical” they understand how to hike towards the highway, rather than mistakenly hike away from it.
To orient them, Warren told the jury he pointed to one mountain and told them to keep it on their left. With his other hand, he pointed at another mountain and told them to keep it on their right. If not, they could lose themselves in the vast, desolate areas near Ajo.
Testimony this week also shed light on the connection between Warren and Irineo Mujica, who ran a migrant shelter in Sonoyta, Sonora, directly across the border from Lukeville, and helped organize the “caravans” of migrants from Central American countries last year.
Federal prosecutors in Warren’s case suggested his contact with Mujica a few days before Perez and Sacaria arrived at The Barn was evidence of a conspiracy. Warren said Thursday that contact came as part of a search for a set of human remains that was reportedly in the desert near Ajo.
Emails shown to the courtroom Thursday, which was packed with supporters of Warren, showed Warren, Mujica and others coordinating trips to bring supplies to the migrant shelter in Sonoyta and efforts to find human remains that dated back to mid-2017.
Court records in Tucson’s federal court show Border Patrol agents failed to arrest Mujica on at least two occasions in the weeks after Warren’s arrest. In one incident at the checkpoint near Ajo, agents found Mujica driving a van with someone who was in the country illegally, but did not arrest Mujica.
Although U.S. authorities did not arrest Mujica, Mexican federal prosecutors announced on Wednesday they had arrested Mujica and accused him of asking for money in exchange for helping Hondurans cross into Mexico and move up to the U.S. border.
The prosecution against Warren rested its case Thursday. Closing arguments are expected Friday before the jury begins deliberations.
Warren also is waiting for the verdict in a bench trial from last month on misdemeanor charges related to driving on unauthorized roads in a wildlife refuge in June 2017 and leaving water jugs and food for migrants.
Eight other No More Deaths volunteers were charged with misdemeanors related to humanitarian aid efforts in 2017.