The parents of a woman who was killed by federal agents during a 2019 shoot-out in Ahwatukee are suing the agents in federal court, alleging excessive force. They claim that their daughter was "intentionally killed in ambush style" by the agents.
On April 11, 2019, federal agents in metro Phoenix were tracking Warren Jose, a man they suspected of operating as a human smuggler on the Tohono O'odham Nation near the international border. The agents decided to intercept Jose by ramming his vehicle on South 48th Street in Ahwatukee. A shootout ensued, resulting in the death of 29-year-old Theresa Medina Thomas, who was in Jose's vehicle. Jose survived. The case was widely covered by local media.
According to the complaint, which filed by Theresa's parents, O'odham residents Ronald Bernal and Tina Juan, on April 9 in Arizona U.S. District Court, their daughter was at a party with a friend of Jose when she was invited to go to a different party. Jose arrived and picked them all up. At one point, Thomas got behind the wheel when Jose said he was too tired to drive. Jose also allegedly gave her alcohol and an "unknown drug."
When they were intercepted, the agents "violently opened fire" with pistols and rifles on Thomas and the other occupants of the vehicle through the windshield, the complaints says. One of the agents, Richard Mortenson, who has been identified as a Special Response Team leader with HSI by local media, fatally shot the woman three times in the head and four times in the shoulder with a .40-caliber Sig Sauer semiautomatic pistol. The lawsuit alleges that Mortenson "bragged" in an interview after the shooting that he emptied three magazines with his pistol before he stopped firing.
The parents accuse Mortenson, three other agents, and up to 20 unknown officials in the lawsuit of "fabricating" their reports that Jose shot at them first with a modified AK-47 automatic rifle that was in his car.
Jose told investigators that he started firing after he heard gunshots, but the agents claimed Jose initiated the gun battle, according to a 2019 report in Cronkite News. However, police and prosecutors were unable to determine which account was true and witnesses were unsure who fired first. Several ballistics experts reportedly reviewed audio captured by a nearby home security system and determined that a Sig Sauer pistol fired first.
"Various independent Acoustic Ballistic experts irrefutably proved the Defendants' assertions were totally fraudulent and fabrications to cover-up that they unnecessarily and violently used their F150 trucks as deadly weapons by ramming their heavy trucks into Suspect Jose's vehicle and immediately initiated a blaze of unprovoked gunfire with combat caliber weapons [sic]," the complaint states.
Bernal and Juan, who listed the small O'odham town of Topawa as their address and are acting as their own lawyers in the case so far, are seeking a jury trial and damages. They did not respond to New Times' requests for comment.
Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, an ICE spokesperson, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
(Correction: Theresa Medina Thomas was 29 at the time of her death, not 17.)
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