Monday, January 18, 2010

Convicted border agent trying to start over

Now in Katy, he wants a new trial in shooting of immigrant

By SUSAN CARROLL
HOUSTON CHRONICLE

Jan. 18, 2010, 6:06AM

photo
Johnny Hanson Chronicle
Ignacio Ramos says he and his wife, Monica, and children moved to Katy because of the support they received during their legal battles. He was able to find work with the help of a supporter.

Five years ago, Ignacio Ramos was pulling long shifts as a senior U.S. Border Patrol agent, chasing smugglers and immigrants along the Rio Grande. He'd coached Little League long enough that dozens of teenagers called him “Coach Nacho.”

He and his wife, Monica, both born and raised in El Paso, were busy working and raising three boys.

Their life was, in his words, completely normal. Not boring. Just normal.

All he wants now, he says, is to have that back.

Ramos, now 40, has become a polarizing figure in the U.S. border security debate. To supporters, he is a martyr, wrongly sentenced to more than a decade in prison for doing his job — shooting at a drug smuggler he believed was threatening his partner. To critics, he and his former partner, Jose Compean, are rogue lawmen who shot a man and tried to cover it up, and caught a break when former President George W. Bush commuted their sentences amid a firestorm of publicity and public pressure.

In the 11 months since Ramos was released from federal prison, he and his family have been trying to piece their lives back together. Six months ago, they packed up their home in El Paso and moved to a four-bedroom rental home in a Katy subdivision with winding streets and cul-de-sacs and good schools.

They got jobs, put the boys back in baseball, and are trying to build new lives.

But Ramos is planning to reopen a door to the darkest chapter of his life. Within the next two months, his attorney plans to ask for a new trial.

‘Rolling the dice'

Ramos said new evidence came out while he was incarcerated that he believes would change the guilty verdict, though he said his attorney won't allow him to discuss specifics. Though Bush commuted his prison sentence, he did not offer Ramos a full pardon, and Ramos remains a convicted felon.

“I know I'm rolling the dice,” Ramos said, glancing at his wife.

“We don't go into it blind. We talk about it, and we both know the risks,” Ramos said. “And it's hard knowing what the possibility is. But it is important for me to be cleared.”

The risk, he said, is that asking for a new trial could result in prosecutors bringing new charges, though his attorney told him that was only a slim possibility.

Ramos took his chances at his first trial, saying he turned down a plea deal that offered him 18 months in prison. A federal grand jury had indicted him on seven charges and Compean on nine related to the Feb. 17, 2005, shooting of Oswaldo Aldrete Davila, an illegal immigrant from Juarez.

Aldrete, who was given immunity for his testimony against the agents, had crossed the Rio Grande and picked up a van southeast of El Paso loaded with marijuana. After a car chase toward the river, Aldrete was shot in the buttocks as he ran from the agents.

Prosecutors accused the agents of orchestrating a cover-up, charging that they never reported the shooting to superiors and made false reports, and that Compean picked up shell casings at the scene. The agents said they believed Aldrete had a weapon in his hand.

“I really believed whoever was on the jury would hear the story and would believe us, and not the story of a drug smuggler,” Ramos said.

A jury found Ramos and Compean guilty of charges including assault with a dangerous weapon and discharging of a firearm in commission of a crime of violence. In October 2006, a judge sentenced Ramos to 11 years in prison and Compean to 12.

Prosecutor defends case

Ramos started serving his time in a prison in Mississippi, but was assaulted in February 2007 and transferred to another facility in Arizona. He was put into solitary confinement for his own protection, which meant that he had no access to TV, showered three times a week, and got a monthly, 15-minute call home.

Long after the agents' convictions, the case continued to cause an uproar on talk radio and cable TV programs. Supporters, including dozens of members of Congress, called for pardons for Ramos and Compean.

Johnny Sutton, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the agents, defended the case, saying a jury convicted the two agents of serious crimes, and the case was “about the rule of law.”

Stays on federal record

With the conviction on his record, Ramos said he had trouble finding work in El Paso, and he worried for his family's safety. After a few months, he and Monica decided to start over in Katy, saying they were encouraged in large part by the amount of support they'd received in Houston during Ramos' legal battles.

Louise Whiteford, the president of the Houston-based organization Texans for Immigration Reform, said she and other members have participated in fundraisers for Ramos and Compean, calling the way the case was handled in the court and prison system questionable.

Monica found work here right away, but Ramos sent out dozens of applications and resumes, with no response. He finally landed a job assisting pipe fitters at a plant on Houston's east side through a supporter familiar with his case, he said.

Still, even as the family regains some normalcy, Ramos said he's compelled to try and clear his name.

“Even though there are people that believe in you, and there are people helping you, it's not easy to live with. It's very hard,” he said. “Because if you didn't know the story, ... if you just look at what's left on my record, you'd be like, ‘Oh my god, I can't leave my kids around this guy, or I can't be around this guy. This guy is dangerous.'”

Ramos said he knows that even if he's granted a new trial and then acquitted of the charges, the earlier convictions still will remain on his federal record. It would show he was convicted, but later exonerated.

That, he said, is still worth fighting for.

susan.carroll@chron.com
"TIME FOR JUSTICE"
February 20th for Ramos and Compean click on link for details! www.nbpc.net

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