In early November of 1979, Gabriel Felix Niebla, an undocumented migrant, came to the United States from Mexico seeking employment. He soon found a job in Corcoran, California, and sent word to his wife, 19-year-old Maria Lopez de Felix, to join him.
Maria had never been to the United States, and in fact had never previously ventured from the rural area of Sinaloa, Mexico, where she was born and raised.
To transport her north, Gabriel made arrangements with immediate family members. An uncle, Guadalupe Niebla, accompanied Maria to Tijuana; an aunt, Secundina Hernandez de Niebla, provided a temporary stop-over at her makeshift shack; a sister-in-law, Josefina Hernandez de Felix, drove down from Corcoran and picked up Maria, hiding her in the trunk of the car to conceal her from inspectors at the border when they crossed at the San Ysidro port of entry (just south of San Diego).
Before Maria climbed into the car, Secundina slipped a piece of paper into her brassiere containing directions back to Secundina’s home and instructed her to take a taxi back in the event she was discovered and turned back at the border.
The family’s precautions were prudent and necessary. The entire border area near San Ysidro was a danger zone in which armed bandits preyed on migrants who often carried money with them on their passage north to America. This zone was such a deadly hotspot that the San Diego police formed an undercover unit which posed as migrants to lure and arrest the robbers, but quickly abandoned the mission because it led to frequent gun battles and casualties. In sum, the zone was too dangerous for even the police.
It was into this background that Maria ventured in her quest to unite with her husband. She was not successful. Arriving at 1 am at the inspection lane on Sunday, Nov. 25, 1979, she was found hiding in the trunk by a customs inspector. She and Josefina were taken to the Immigration Office, where Josefina was fingerprinted and released to return to Corcoran (she was a legal resident) while Maria was summarily deported back into Mexico, alone and on foot, at 1:30 am — into the very killing zone that the authorities knew was too deadly for even armed law enforcement to patrol.
She never had a chance. Early the next morning, her body was found in a narrow breezeway next to an old, seldom-used Customs Building on the U.S. side of the border — just a few hundred feet away from where she was released and ordered to return to the other side.
An examination of the corpse revealed that Maria had been brutally beaten, raped and strangled. In the nearby old Customs Building, investigators discovered torn-away items of her clothing, a religious medallion she had worn, her purse and the note on the floor that Secundina had placed in her brassiere.
It was apparent that, although the body had been deposited outside in the breezeway, the crime had been committed inside the building. This was a critical clue because the building was secured and the perpetrator needed keys to access it.
At the time this happened, I was the chief of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of California. In that capacity, I teamed with the FBI in the investigation of the violent rape/murder of Maria. As noted, the perpetrator had attempted to cover his involvement by creating the appearance that she had been waylaid outside in an area that was known to be frequented by undocumented migrants illegally crossing the border.
But trace evidence, which included paint flecks from the floor of the building found on Maria and other items, placed the crime scene inside the old building. This focused the inquiry on those having access — i.e., federal officials stationed at the border.
Ultimately, the investigation uncovered key forensic evidence such as body hairs and fluids, the same paint flecks on the suspect’s uniform that were found on Maria’s clothing, and other circumstantial evidence, which led to my role in bringing charges against a federal protective officer who was on duty in the area at the time of Maria’s disappearance and murder. He also had the means to access the secured building where the crime occurred — the keys — and a pocket knife he possessed had tape residue on it matching residue on a taped outside gate between the building and the breezeway which had been cut through by Maria’s abductor.
I tried the case to a jury, which found him guilty, resulting in his being sentenced to life imprisonment, subject to being eligible for parole after serving 20 years.
The point of these reflections, however, is not the investigation or the trial of the perpetrator, which brought at least a measure of justice to what otherwise might have been an unsolved crime. There is much more to take away from this tragic narrative.
It certainly had a dramatic impact on me that I have never forgotten as I participated in interviewing key principals in Maria’s tragic journey. Because it was well known how dangerous it was to send Maria alone and on foot at that hour into such a deadly zone, I asked the immigration officials why they did not allow either Josefina to drive her back to Secundina’s home or permit Maria to remain safely at the Immigration Office until morning when she could arrange her own transportation (the taxi) there.
They just shrugged blankly. That cavalier response led me to ask if they had children and, if so, would they want their daughter to be placed under the same circumstances by the authorities in such extreme peril. The answer I received from one official was “My daughter would not try to come here illegally.”
Of course, his daughter would have no need to, because she already possessed what Maria was seeking — joining her husband and earning a future with hope. It saddened me deeply that such a powerful federal official was so devoid of empathy and plain common sense decency that he thought nothing of the fact this his decision led directly to her death.
In interviewing colleagues of the officer who was later convicted of the rape and murder of Maria, I learned that some had occasionally engaged in conversations about ways to sexually assault undocumented migrants and get away with it.
I also learned of an incident approximately a year earlier in which another undocumented migrant — Ramona Hernandez — had been turned back at the port of entry. She was last seen at the border speaking with the same officer who was later convicted in Maria’s death. She disappeared that same evening, and her body was discovered in a shallow grave in the desert some 40 miles east of San Diego.
That homicide was briefly investigated by local authorities and closed for insufficient evidence. I question very much whether authorities would have done the same perfunctory investigation were Ramona other than an undocumented migrant.
I also talked with Maria’s family and went to Secundina’s makeshift dwelling, where I was received with hospitality but also grief and questions I could not answer about the manner in which she had been sent to her death by the government I represented. I had no words because I knew just a little compassion would have prevented her death.
In more recent times, we have witnessed the incredible cruelty of the government’s separation policy, tearing children from their parents, putting the children in cages, and deporting the parents without generating the records that would allow them to be reunited. We have seen Border Patrol agents destroying life-saving water jugs and food left by volunteer rescue groups in the desert to save the lives of migrants stranded in the harsh southern border deserts. And we have seen those same volunteers prosecuted for aiding those who would otherwise die.
Thankfully, we have a different administration now. But the attitudes that resulted in Maria’s violent death are hardly gone. Migrants are still demonized, and many in our nation consider them criminals and are, like those I spoke with some 42 years ago, completely unsympathetic with their plight or the circumstances that bring them here.
Yet the fact is America is a nation of immigrants. My ancestors migrated here in 1642, fleeing from civil wars in England. Almost all of our ancestors came here for the same reason Maria tried to come here — for a better life with her family. That we have ours is no reason to look down on those who seek the same opportunity and are hardly criminals simply because we got here first. I can trace my roots in America back almost 400 years, but there is no entitlement in that history.
And the sobering truth is, many of the migrants at our doorstep are fleeing climate change that is caused in large part by our energy policies and hesitation to make necessary changes to those policies. Parts of Central America are becoming deserts which cannot sustain even subsistence farming. Our hands are not clean in these and other factors that are contributing to the increase in migration. That is a topic for another time. For now, I wish to remember Maria, who, as I write this essay, would be about 60 years old had she lived, joined Gabriel and raised her family. We never gave her the chance.
A former federal prosecutor, Judge Thomas Coffin was a U.S. magistrate for the District of Oregon until his retirement in 2017.