Profiling alleged in marshal's shooting of wrong man
Anne Blythe, Staff Writer
(CHAPEL HILL, N.C.) -- As Latino leaders allege racial profiling, a man shot by a federal marshal is trying to build a case against the agents who, his lawyer says, held him and his wife at gunpoint.
Early next week, the lawyer says, State Bureau of Investigation agents plan to reconstruct the events that led to the moment when a federal marshal mistook Bariel Aguilar Martinez, a house painter from Durham, for a fugitive and shot him in the leg outside La Hacienda restaurant.
"I can't see any reason to justify this shooting, nothing," said Jay Ferguson, the Durham attorney retained by the Aguilar Martinez family. "It was simply a family going to the restaurant like any other family."
Details of what happened that night remain sketchy. In the U.S. Marshal's Office in Greensboro, the policy is to wait until an internal investigation is complete to release information, Supervisor Deputy Marshal Tom Morefield said. For that reason, he said, the office continues to shield the name of the agent who fired the gun.
What is known, according to local police reports and interviews with officials familiar with the case, is that about 7 p.m. Monday, Christopher William Sweeney, a U.S. Marshal's Office representative, alerted Chapel Hill police that he and two other federal agents were in their jurisdiction. They were looking for a fugitive in a federal drug conspiracy case, Morefield said, and were told that he would be at La Hacienda, 1813 Chapel Hill Blvd., between 8:15 and 9 p.m.
Miguela Martinez, an employee at the restaurant and a professional photographer, had asked Aguilar Martinez to meet him there. "I had taken pictures of his daughter at a church celebration," Miguela Martinez said. "He was going to bring me money, and I was going to give him the pictures."
At some point between 8 and 9 p.m., the federal agents, convinced that their suspect was a no-show, were ready to abort their mission. Then a blue Jeep Cherokee pulled into the parking lot. Aguilar Martinez was driving. His wife, Carmen, was in the passenger seat, and a son and daughter were along for the ride.
The vehicle was similar to the one the fugitive was supposed to be driving, according to Morefield, so the agents blocked the car from the rear and ordered the man to get out. Then, according to the marshal's report, as the driver opened the door, he made a threatening gesture. But Morefield would not describe the motion.
One of the marshals fired his gun and wounded Aguilar Martinez just above the knee. An agent then pushed Aguilar Martinez to the ground and handcuffed him. Another agent rushed around to the passenger side of the Jeep and held Carmen Martinez at gunpoint for several minutes, according to Ferguson.
Aguilar Martinez speaks limited English.
"There were no threatening moves whatsoever," Ferguson said.
By the time Chapel Hill officers arrived on the scene, Capt. Everett Johnson said, one agent was handcuffing the driver and another was near the passenger side of the vehicle. Chapel Hill officers helped secure the scene while the marshals waited for agents from the SBI to arrive.
The victim was treated at a hospital and released with a bullet in his leg. According to his lawyer, he has missed work because of his injury.
With only incomplete information available about the shooting, Triangle Latino leaders are demanding explanations. John Herrera, a board member of El Centro Latino in Carrboro, wants federal officials to hold community meetings so concerns can be aired.
"This is typical of racial profiling," Herrera said Friday afternoon. "These officers go through training. What they need to understand is many of the countries we are coming from, we are scared of police. They are very corrupt there.
"The sad thing about this case is that the officers shot somebody in front of their family. They need to let the community know what is the reason to shoot somebody when their wife and children are in the car."
After state agents complete their investigation, they will submit a report to Carl Fox, the Orange-Chatham district attorney. Fox will review the evidence and decide whether to charge the federal agent with assault with a deadly weapon, a felony that could end the marshal's career in law enforcement. No one in the marshal's office would say whether any internal actions had been taken against the agent who fired the gun. Officials would speak only in generalities.
"What we typically do," Morefield said, "is put the person on administrative desk duty."
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