Border Patrol under fire in Grand Maraisby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
The Border Patrol finds itself in the public cross-hairs in Grand Marais. The federal law enforcement agency was already on the defensive over plans two years ago to build a new regional post and detainment compound.
Now, a Border Patrol agent stands accused of criminal traffic violations in a fatal accident last fall. She's asked her case be moved from state to federal court and local residents question why, some fearing a coverup.
Grand Marais, Minn. — It's about 11 p.m. and the woods are dark. The dashboard lights glow on the face of agent Joe Kempa as his eyes scan the darkness from behind the wheel of a big white and green SUV.
Kempa is the guy in charge of northeast Minnesota's Border Patrol, based in Grand Marais. He's driving very slowly, bouncing along a pitted, untended road that runs along the Pigeon River near the international border with Canada.
"We've gone lights out," Kempa said.
Agents recently caught two eastern Europeans who'd crossed the river near here, trying to sneak into the U.S. illegally.
But the Border Patrol is relying less on agents' eyes, and more on electronic sensors these days.
"There are seismic sensors," Kempa said. "There are cameras in the woods. That's the bread and butter of a Border Patrol agent's daily duties, responding to the technology."
But there are a growing number of Border Patrol agents racing to check out electronic alerts. And locals have chafed at what they see as high-speed coming and going with no obvious purpose.
The Border Patrol has been a small presence in Cook and Lake Counties for decades. But since Sept. 11, 2001, the number of agents has more than doubled to 14, and is expected to keep growing. That growth has rankled some area residents, especially here in Grand Marais on Lake Superior.
Two years ago, the Border Patrol was hunting for property to build a new compound.
"It just sounded to a number of us like an excessive buildup of kind of scary and unnecessary activity," said resident and artist Betsy Bowen.
Bowen worried how a quasi-military base would affect a tranquil tourist town known for its postcard-perfect harbor and lighthouse, thriving arts scene, and pricey coffee. Bowen thought Grand Marais was no place for the Border Patrol's facility.
"An eight-foot security fence, 24-hour lighting, a helipad, and prison cells," Bowen said. "And this was going to be two blocks from the school."
The prospect of helicopters thumping over treetops in the peaceful northwoods didn't sit well with some.
Critics questioned the need for the facility, because, by anyone's count, the Border Patrol was not catching huge numbers of smugglers or illegal immigrants sneaking across the heavily forested northern border. Concerned residents organized meetings that drew 75 people or more.
Then, after months of controversy, the government withdrew its building plans. The Patrol said it wasn't because of local opposition, but rather a re-evaluation of where the resources were most needed.
Instead, the Border Patrol is now moving into available office space in an old Coast Guard building, on Grand Marais' Artists Point. There's no eight-foot fence and no helipad.
But by then the Border Patrol had developed a reputation for trampling local sensibilities with impunity.
And locals' mistrust for the agency rekindled the night of Oct. 31, 2007.
On a rain-slicked stretch of the Gunflint Trail, a Border Patrol vehicle struck and killed Kenneth Peterson, a prominent and well-liked local doctor. A tree had fallen across the pavement that night, and Peterson was out of his car trying to clear it from the road.
After the accident, the Border Patrol and the agent at the wheel, Maranda Weber, clammed up.
Weber refused interviews with investigators, and then she transferred to a post in North Dakota. With the case open, neither the Border Patrol nor Weber's attorneys have spoken publicly about the accident, citing legal necessity.
The silence provoked another wave of outrage. Local blogs lit up with a litany of gripes and unsubstantiated accusations.
The list included speeding, unfriendly agents, secrecy, and what one posting called a general "up yours" attitude. Another said "they get to do all sorts of bad stuff because ... well, just because they can."
Despite the outcry, a Cook County grand jury found there wasn't enough evidence to charge Weber with criminal vehicular homicide.
County Attorney Timothy Scannell said the grand jury handed down two lesser charges instead.
"The Border Patrol agent, Maranda Weber, was indicted by the grand jury on two misdemeanor counts: one of careless driving, the other of inattentive driving or failure to drive with due care," said Scannell.
The lack of more serious charges prompted accusations that Weber was getting favorable treatment because she's a Border Patrol agent -- accusations like this one from Grand Marais baker Staci Drouillard.
"An average person would be held accountable, and the federal agent who is responsible for the accident is not being held accountable," said Drouillard. "Whereas we're all held accountable for our actions, I believe a Border Patrol agent should be just as accountable."
Still, Weber is facing charges that could land her in jail if a jury convicts her.
Because of the complaints about the Border Patrol, Weber is now saying she can't get a fair trial in Cook County. She's disputing the local authorities' jurisdiction and trying to move the case to federal court.
To locals like Betsy Bowen, the silence, the delays in bringing charges, and attempts to move the case out of the local courts to a federal court, just add to the sense that the Border Patrol isn't accountable.
"That it seemed like, again the higher-ups just whisked it away," Bowen said. "They weren't going to allow what would be a normal justice process. That wasn't going to be allowed to happen. And so again it feels like the police state just taking over the process."
Grand Marais carpenter Marco Good agrees.
"Taking it out of the community where it happened seems real undemocratic to me," said Good. "And I think to everyone. You know, we can't be trusted to enforce our own laws."
Weber's attempt to move the case to federal court is based on a law dating from the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, when local officials in some Southern states would try to jail federal workers like tax collectors.
According to Vanderbilt University law professor Suzanna Sherry, the law protects federal workers from unfair charges for just doing their job. But it's rarely used.
"It really is an extraordinary remedy to say that a state can't conduct its own criminal prosecution in its own courts," Sherry said.
But for Weber, a change of jurisdiction is no sure thing.
Sherry said Weber's attorneys must show that her actions were necessary in doing her federal job.
"That the traffic accident was because she's doing her duty, her federal duty, rather than just in the course of her federal duties," Sherry said.
The Border Patrol's critics who are demanding accountability are probably helping Weber move her case out of Cook County, even though they might not realize it. Weber has to prove there's local hostility to her. The louder the critics, the more ammunition she's got.
The decision is in the hands of U.S. District Judge John Tunheim.
Meanwhile, the Border Patrol's Joe Kempa is trying to publicize the agency's mission and improve its image.
"And as we increase staffing numbers, the more mystery there seems to be surrounding it. However, nothing could be further from the truth," said Kempa. "We have a very simple, straight forward anti-terrorism, anti-illegal immigration mission."
Read part 2:Border Patrol says its mission is misunderstood
- All Things Considered, 09/17/2008, 4:45 p.m.