With lights flashing and guns drawn, nearly a dozen police officers blocked the northbound lane of Highway 87 Wednesday afternoon and slowly emptied a white passenger van of its occupants 13 undocumented Mexican nationals. The van was reported stolen out of Phoenix Feb. 20 during an alleged home invasion.
The 13 Mexicans 10 adults and three children were taken to Immigration and Naturalization Service in Phoenix. INS officials believe, but could not confirm Friday, that the 13 qualified for voluntary return to Mexico, and were escorted across the border that night.
"We had to use a little different approach on this than if it had been a typical van of illegal aliens," Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner said. "We didn't know if any of these people were involved in that home invasion we didn't know if any of the passengers were armed."
The stolen van was discovered in Payson around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, when it stalled at the intersection of highways 87 and 260. Officer Steve D'Addabbo stopped to help push the van off the road, and ran the license plates through police computers as a matter of standard procedure.
Gartner said that according to Phoenix police records, three of the men that D'Addabbo could see in the van matched the general description of the three men involved in the Phoenix home invasion. D'Addabbo called for additional officers.
Within moments, the northbound lane was blocked by half a dozen police cars, as officers approached the van with guns drawn. Gartner said the large police presence was a necessity.
"It's an interesting dynamic," he said. "When you approach a situation like this with a pretty good show of force, you reduce the likelihood of a shoot-out. We had enough people with the help of the sheriff's department and (Department of Public Safety) officers to do what we did."
Interpreters Irma Bramlet and Reed Watson were brought in from the police department to help translate the officers' commands, and one by one, the passengers were told to step out of the van and were searched.
"There were eight, nine ... I don't know. I lost count after awhile," Gartner said.
In all, there were nine men, one woman, two children and one teenager each of whom said they were passing through Payson on their way to Winslow.
Through interpreters, the suspects were told that the van was reported stolen. The driver told officers, however, that he just bought the van in Phoenix. Within an hour, the officers had all of the passengers out of the van, searched and lined up on the sidewalk. By the time traffic was allowed to pass the scene, officers had determined that there were no weapons inside the van. After the driver and passengers were searched and cuffed, they were taken to the police station for questioning.
Sgt. Tom Tieman contacted Phoenix police, who asked him to take photographs and fingerprints of the suspects and transport them to the Valley.
"However, the report from the home invasion says very specifically that the victims do not want to prosecute," Tieman said. "They told us, 'If you arrest them, we will not prosecute.'"
During interviews, the driver insisted that he just purchased the van in the past few days.
"There was not a lot we could do with that," Gartner said. "We see this kind of thing all the time. We see illegal aliens selling their vehicles back and forth to each other ... there's obviously never any title, no paperwork."
Payson officers called INS in Phoenix, but were told that INS didn't have anyone available to pick up the Mexicans, "so that night, two of our officers drove them down," the chief said.
Officers David Vaughn and Reed Watson drove the 13 people to INS at Central and McDowell.
"We were led to believe they were going to be transported to Nogales that night because all of the INS holding cells were filled," Vaughn said.
"That sounds extremely logical," Russell Ahr, INS special assistant to the district director, said. "We're in the middle of a major operation right now. We have more than 100 agents working this operation, and we have detained more than 2,600 immigrants in the past 45 days. At any given time, all of our facilities are full."