LAPD Officer Was the ‘Immigrant Dream’ Before His Life Changed at a Border Patrol Checkpoint

By James Queally, Los Angeles Times

When proponents of tougher enforcement talk about people coming to the U.S. “the right way,” they often describe immigrants like Mambasse Patara.

The 53-year-old Fontana resident entered the U.S. legally from Togo in 1999, then earned his citizenship by fighting in the Iraq war as a Marine. He has spent the last 12 years as a patrolman and traffic investigator for the Los Angeles Police Department.

But after nearly two decades of lawful contacts with immigration authorities, Patara found himself at odds with the U.S. Border Patrol last year when he was stopped at a checkpoint in Pine Valley, some 50 miles east of San Diego.

Mambasse Patara, a Marine and LAPD officer, said he had no idea his handyman was an undocumented immigrant when he drove through a Border Patrol checkpoint. He figured it was a simple misunderstanding, but prosecutors spent a year trying to send him to federal prison. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Mambasse Patara, a Marine and LAPD officer, said he had no idea his handyman was an undocumented immigrant when he drove through a Border Patrol checkpoint. He figured it was a simple misunderstanding, but prosecutors spent a year trying to send him to federal prison. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Patara said he had no idea the two men in his car — one a neighborhood handyman he’d known for years — were in the country without legal authorization.

But after nearly two decades of lawful contacts with immigration authorities, Patara found himself at odds with the U.S. Border Patrol last year when he was stopped at a checkpoint in Pine Valley, some 50 miles east of San Diego.

Patara said he had no idea the two men in his car — one a neighborhood handyman he’d known for years — were in the country without legal authorization.

There was little reason to question the validity of Patara’s arrest at a Border Patrol checkpoint along Interstate 8 in Imperial County in April 2018. The two men in his car — German Ramirez-Gonzalez and Fermin Lopez — were Mexican citizens who each had contact with immigration authorities more than a dozen times, court records show.

The question of whether Patara knew the men were in the country illegally, or if he’d plotted to try to get them past the checkpoint, soon became central to the case. Prosecutors contended Patara intentionally drove to El Centro to help shepherd the men through an interior checkpoint, and argued that he flashed his LAPD credentials hoping to dissuade agents from asking too many questions.

Patara said he showed his police credentials only in case the agents were concerned that he was carrying a firearm. He and his attorney said Ramirez-Gonzalez and Lopez had tricked him.

On the day he was arrested, Patara said, he and his wife, Minerva Hernandez, had traveled from Fontana to El Centro to meet Ramirez-Gonzalez and his wife, Mary Aragon.

The two groups connected, but the women decided to head back to Fontana in Aragon’s car after Patara and his wife got into an argument. The men continued on to the Golden Acorn casino, which prosecutors described in court documents as a popular hub for human smuggling.

Prosecutors said Ramirez-Gonzalez and Lopez had entered the country illegally on foot from Tecate days earlier. Patara swore he knew nothing about their immigration status and simply had agreed to drive them back to Fontana.

During the same trial at which Patara was acquitted, Aragon was convicted of trying to smuggle her husband and Lopez into the country. Ramirez-Gonzalez also was convicted of trying to smuggle Lopez, who has since been returned to Mexico.

Court records about their sentencing were not available, and a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego declined to provide additional details.

It was unclear if Ramirez-Gonzalez faced deportation. Aragon is a U.S. citizen, according to court records. A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said she could not comment.

Patara said he received no payment from either man and had no motive to help them get past the checkpoint. Although he had known Ramirez-Gonzalez for roughly five years, he had never thought to ask about his immigration status.

Patara met Lopez for the first time that day, when Ramirez-Gonzalez introduced the man as his uncle. The two are not related, records show. After the arrest, Lopez said he did not know who Patara was, but claimed Ramirez-Gonzalez had told him the man could drive them past a checkpoint, according to court records.

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