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Dallas Morning News August 14, 1997

Congressman says border slaying investigation being hindered
He calls Justice Department not cooperative in case involving teen shot by Marine

By David Jackson / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON - A Texas congressman accused the Justice Department Wednesday of obstructing his investigation into the May shooting of a teenager by a Marine on border patrol near Redford.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, who chairs a House subcommittee on immigration, told Attorney General Janet Reno in a letter that the military has been much more cooperative than her Justice Department.

"Instead, the Department has been prepared to delay and obstruct congressional oversight by any means available, with the avoidance of public embarrassment and legal liability as its only guiding stars," Mr. Smith wrote.

Justice Department officials said they would have to review Mr. Smith's letter before responding. Some said the response may be limited because the death of 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez Jr. is also being investigated by a Presidio County grand jury.

On May 20, Marine Cpl. Clemente Manuel Banuelos, part of a four-person anti-drug surveillance team, shot and killed Mr. Hernandez. The Presidio High School sophomore was tending his family's goat herd when he crossed the soldiers' path.

Military officials said Mr. Hernandez shot twice at the team and the corporal fired back to protect a comrade. The victim's family disputes that version of events.

The Presidio County grand jury is scheduled to meet again Thursday in Marfa, and may decide whether to indict Cpl. Banuelos. The grand jury is also expected to hear from the three Marines who accompanied Cpl. Banuelos.

The shooting occurred during a military-run border surveillance project requested by the U.S. Border Patrol, which is a Justice Department agency. The Defense Department suspended the program after Mr. Hernandez's death.

Mr. Smith's immigration subcommittee plans hearings this fall on the Hernandez shooting. But in his letter to Ms. Reno, Mr. Smith complained about two "incomplete" briefings he received from the Border Patrol.

In his letter to Ms. Reno, Mr. Smith said he wanted to know why it took the Border Patrol 38 minutes to respond to the shooting. He also complained that the Marines were not briefed on reports that Mr. Hernandez had fired at two Border Patrol agents in February because he thought the agents were threatening his goats.

The Texas Republican complained that Border Patrol officials told him they didn't want to know too much "so as not to prejudice any ongoing investigations."

Mr. Smith said the Defense Department, however, gave him a "detailed briefing."

"I expect the Justice Department to explain to Congress and the American people in a candid, forthright and timely manner, all of the details surrounding Mr. Hernandez's death," Mr. Smith wrote.

Mr. Smith said he hoped the incident can be resolved soon so that the military could resume its surveillance assistance along the border.

"This withdrawal of military assistance comes at a time when drug-smuggling, alien-smuggling, and their attendant violence and corruption are increasing all along the border, and I am deeply concerned about our ability to combat this wave of criminal activity in an effective manner," he wrote.

This article copyright 1997 the Dallas Morning News and is reproduced for non-profit educational purposes only.

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