TUCSON, Ariz. (Reuters) - Two men charged with murdering a U.S. Border Patrol agent during a late-night gunbattle near the U.S.-Mexican border in 2010 were found guilty on all counts on Thursday by a federal jury in Arizona.
Jesus Leonel Sanchez-Meza and Ivan Soto-Barraza, both extradited from Mexico, were convicted after less than a day of deliberations following a week-long trial in Tucson.
Prosecutors said Sanchez-Meza, also known as Lionel Portilla-Meza, and Soto-Barraza were part of a five-man “rip crew” suspected of robbing drug smugglers operating in the Sonoran Desert just west of Rio Rico, Arizona.
Agent Brian Terry, along with three other Border Patrol agents, tried to intercept the men on Dec. 14, 2010, and Terry was fatally shot in the ensuing firefight. One of the “rip crew” members was wounded, officials said.
Sanchez-Meza and Soto-Barraza denied they fired their weapons and said they fled when they were engaged by the agents.
Andrea Matheson, one of the defense attorneys, said she was preparing an appeal. Sanchez-Meza and Soto-Barraza both face mandatory life sentences for first-degree murder, second-degree murder, conspiracy, attempted robbery, carrying a firearm in a violent crime, and four counts of assaulting a federal officer.
The case drew international attention when two AK-47s found at the scene of the shooting were traced back to the botched “Fast and Furious” gun-trafficking investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The goal of the operation was to track guns bought by straw buyers, or people who purchased firearms pretending they were for their own use, which were then sent to senior drug cartel members. In most cases, however, ATF agents did not follow the guns beyond the initial buyer.
During the trial, federal prosecutors presented evidence that connected the men to the weapons and personal items, including clothing left in the area where Terry was killed.
The wounded crew member plead guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison in February 2014. A recruiter who put together the group has also pleaded guilty and may receive 30 years as well. Two other members of the crew remain at large in Mexico.
Reporting by Paul Ingram; Editing by Curtis Skinner and Peter Cooney