Pilot in border drowning case found not guilty on 1 count
HOUSTON - A federal jury found a Department of Homeland Security pilot not guilty yesterday of lying about his alleged role in the drowning of a would-be illegal immigrant swimming across the Rio Grande toward Texas but could not reach a verdict on three other similar counts.
Jurors acquitted James Peters on one count of making false statements to federal investigators looking into the 2005 drowning death of Carlos Delgadillo Martinez. A judge declared a mistrial on the three other counts of the same charge.
Prosecutors accused Peters, 41, of lying about flying his helicopter low in an attempt to force Delgadillo and another person back to Mexico. Officials say the force of the turbulence from the helicopter’s rotor blades made Delgadillo lose his grip on an inner tube.
But defense attorneys tried to create doubt in the jurors’ minds by suggesting that surveillance video prosecutors said showed Peters flying over Delgadillo and the other person was not clear, that it did not indicate how far above the men the aircraft was, and that it presented no proof anyone drowned.
The jury indicated several times during its deliberations, which began Wednesday, that it could not reach a unanimous verdict on all four counts. Yesterday, US District Judge Sim Lake resisted prosecutors’ efforts to have jurors continue working, saying they had deliberated extensively.
Peters, who had faced up to five years in prison if convicted, cried after the judge read the verdict. After the jury left the courtroom, he hugged his wife and three friends, including two other Homeland Security pilots.
“He’s relieved,’’ said Thomas Berg, one of Peters’s attorneys. “He’s hoping the government will dismiss the other counts and this nightmare can be over.’’
Federal prosecutors said they respected the jury’s verdict and told Lake they would let him know by late next week if they planned to retry Peters on the three undecided counts or drop those charges.
Prosecutors had argued that surveillance video clearly showed Peters flew his helicopter over the immigrants, getting as close as 100 feet to an international bridge in Laredo, in an attempt to drive them back to Mexico as they tried crossing into the United States on Dec. 14, 2005. Delgadillo’s body was found later that day.