Aid Worker Charged With Harboring Immigrants Testifies During Second Trial

Scott Warren, center, speaks outside federal court, in Tucson, Ariz., on June 11, 2019, after a mistrial was declared in the federal case against him. (AP Photo/Astrid Galvan, File)

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – Humanitarian aid worker Scott Warren testified in his federal trial in Arizona Tuesday that he had a simple goal in mind when he helped two Central American men in January 2018 at an aid station in a remote desert town: keeping people alive in a hostile environment.

“People who have water live longer than people who don’t,” Warren told the jury. “And by extension people who have humanitarian aid live longer than people who don’t.”

Border Patrol agents arrested Warren Jan. 17, 2018 at the “barn,” a run-down building used by the nonprofit No More Deaths. From the barn, volunteers shuttle food and water into the remote Sonoran Desert, where more than 3,000 bodies have been found – most presumed by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office to have been undocumented immigrants.

Warren, 37, is charged with two counts of harboring undocumented immigrants – one each for Kristian Gerardo Perez-Villanueva from El Salvador and Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Godoy from Guatemala, who stayed at the barn for three days in 2018 after entering the U.S. illegally Jan. 12. Warren gave the men food, water, Tylenol and a place to rest.

This is Warren’s second trial after a jury deadlocked in June.

Prosecutors dropped a charge claiming that Warren conspired with Mexican aid worker Irineo Mujica and No More Deaths nurse Susannah Brown to help the men. Since June, defense attorneys have asked for immunity for Brown, who has not been charged and was not subpoenaed as a prosecution witness until Monday.

Brown’s testimony in Warren’s last trial contradicted testimony from another aid worker last week. Defense attorney Greg Kuykendall objected to Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Wright’s attempt to use a transcript of Brown’s previous testimony instead, calling it hearsay.

It was unclear Tuesday if prosecutors could produce Brown to testify before Wednesday’s expected closing arguments. Brown is out of town, Kuykendall said. Her attorney has told prosecutors she will not testify.

Warren, a college geography instructor whose PhD is in cultural and historical geography, told the jury he did not move to the town of 3,000 people for humanitarian work. He came to write his dissertation about cultural impacts of the border, where Mexican, U.S. and Native American cultures have intersected for centuries, he testified.

Shortly after the Arizona State University graduate arrived in the isolated town, he got involved with Ajo Samaritans, a nonprofit that conducts search and rescue missions in the broad expanse of empty desert west of Ajo, he testified.

With Samaritans, Warren came across the first of 18 sets of human remains he would find. The first one shifted his life away from academia, he said.

“That experience, in particular, pulled me off that track. It really pulled me into doing this kind of work,” he told the jury. “There’s something about being present for someone who died in the desert.”

That experience also cemented his intent, which he later carried into his work with No More Deaths, he said. His six and a half years of searching for bodies and leaving food and water for immigrants is all about keeping people alive in a desert that can be deadly, Warren testified.

“We put the water where people have died,” he said.

But prosecutors questioned the descriptions of the desert offered by the defense. Wright Showed Warren and the jury weather data from the days the Central American men were at the barn last January. Lows hovered around 50 degrees Fahrenheit and highs around 70.

Wright also read back testimony from Warren’s first trial in which he said one goal at the barn is to offer a safe environment for anyone who is there, including undocumented immigrants and that safety includes a right to privacy.

Warren told the jury that No More Deaths always operates within the law, in part because they do not want to put volunteers at legal risk.

But Wright highlighted a 2017 incident in which Warren and other volunteers knowingly drove down a restricted road on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, getting Warren to admit on the stand that volunteers do sometimes voluntarily accept legal risk, despite protocols that say not to.

Closing arguments in the trial, which started last Tuesday, are expected Wednesday.

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