Mystery in West Texas: How Did a Border Patrol Agent Die?

Emmerson Buie Jr., special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s El Paso office.

President Trump called it proof of the need to build a wall; Senator Ted Cruz said it was a “stark reminder” of insecurity along the border.

To everyone, it seemed like a horrendous example of the dangers that border patrol officers face as they cover vast, remote and unforgiving territories.

But a month after a middle-of-the-night incident in which one border patrol agent was killed and another, who is said to have no memory of what happened, was severely injured, no one seems to know how the men came into harm’s way off an interstate in West Texas.

It was initially thought to be an attack, perhaps by migrants or drug smugglers. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation says it also was possible the men were hurt accidentally. The Culberson County Sheriff, Oscar Carrillo, who is helping with the investigation, seemed to favor that theory when he told The Dallas Morning News that the men could have been hit by a truck driving along the interstate next to where they were found.

“If this was an assault, believe me, as sheriff, I’d be the first one out there emphasizing safety in our community and with our deputies, pairing them up,” he told the newspaper. “But from what I know and see, that was not the case here.”

That hypothesis has angered the border agents’ union, The National Border Patrol Council, whose leadership fiercely insists that the men were attacked. Chris Cabrera, a spokesman for the organization, went as far as to call Sheriff Carrillo a “dingbat” on his weekly podcast.

“All these other theories, it’s tarnishing the name of our agents,” he said in an interview.

The immediate, politicized reactions from President Trump, Senator Cruz and other elected officials have died down, as weeks have passed without any more clarity as to what happened.

It was just after 11 p.m. on Nov. 18, when, according to the F.B.I., the two agents at the heart of the mystery responded to unspecified “activity” near a culvert, or drainage tunnel, that carries water underneath Interstate 10 near Van Horn.

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One of the agents, Stephen Garland, then called for help. When colleagues arrived, they found both men with major head injuries and broken bones, and took them to a local hospital. The men were flown to a larger hospital in El Paso, where the other agent, Rogelio Martinez, died early the next morning.

Immediately afterward, the F.B.I. said that it would spearhead an inquiry into the incident, which they were treating as a “potential assault against a federal officer,” according to Jeanette Harper, a spokeswoman for the agency. Assaults against Customs and Border Protection officers, including Border Patrol agents, reached 720 in the 2017 fiscal year, the most in at least five years, according to data from the agency.

Ms. Harper said the F.B.I. had collected forensic evidence that was being analyzed at its laboratory in Quantico, Va., and was also “aggressively” following up on leads that came into the agency’s tip line.

One of those led to a search warrant being issued for a car belonging to two brothers. But later, Ms. Harper, the F.B.I. spokeswoman, said the agency had not arrested anyone, or even identified anyone “of interest,” in the investigation, suggesting that the tip about the brothers may not have proved fruitful.

Angie Ochoa, who was engaged to marry Mr. Martinez when he died, said she even went to the scene of the incident, escorted by one of her fiancé’s co-workers, after she became fed up with the shifting accounts of what may have happened. “None of it made sense, so I wanted to see for myself,” she said.

Part of the challenge of establishing what exactly happened to the men is the remoteness of their work. Border agents patrol rocky deserts, often in the middle of the night, where there are very few, if any, other people around. The incident in November happened outside a tiny town of less than 2,000 people. The other agent, Mr. Garland, who has been released from the hospital, is said to have no memory of what happened.

Mr. Martinez’s father, Jose Martinez, said in an interview shortly after his son died that after seeing his son in the hospital, he thought the injuries were too severe to have been caused by an accident. “I believe someone put a trap,” he said. The elder Mr. Martinez said he had often worried about his son working alone in the middle of the night.

Another sign of the uncertainty surrounding the case can be found in the descriptions of the rewards offered by the F.B.I. and the state of Texas.

The state is offering $20,000 for information “leading to the “arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent and the serious injury of another.”

The F.B.I.’s $50,000 reward is for “information leading to the resolution of this case.”

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