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Texas town still in uproar over border shooting

Ezequiel Hernandez August 15, 1997
Web posted at: 11:11 p.m. EDT (0311 GMT)

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REDFORD, Texas (CNN) -- Family and friends of a Texas teen-ager who was killed by a Marine on a drug patrol say they still don't think justice was done in the case.

"Our friend and son from the community went to the grave and the Marines went back to their activities, and I think there should have been some kind of punishment," says Jesus Valenzuela.

Valenzuela is building a new home only yards from where 18-year-old Ezequiel Hernandez Jr. was killed May 20 by Marine Cpl. Clemente Banuelos while tending goats near the Mexican border.

"To me, there wasn't any justice because the only mistake my brother did was to take his goats to herd them in the fields close to the house."

— Hernandez' brother, Margarito

On Thursday a grand jury in Marfa, Texas, didn't indict Banuelos.

"To me, there wasn't any justice because the only mistake my brother did was to take his goats to herd them in the fields close to the house," says Hernandez' brother, Margarito.

Military officials successfully argued that Hernandez shot at a four-man Marine patrol, and that Banuelos shot him as he raised his .22-caliber rifle to fire at another Marine.

'We are not out for vengeance'

Clemente Banuelos

The decision not to charge Banuelos outraged the residents of this border town where Hernandez, a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent, attended high school and herded his family's goats every afternoon.

They say there is no way he would have deliberately opened fire with an 80-year-old rifle on anyone, much less a group of heavily armed Marines.

"We are not out for vengeance but we think he (Banuelos) should have been held accountable in some way," says Melvin LaFollette, a Redford resident and former Episcopal minister.

Others said Marines should never have been sent into civilian areas to boost the war on drugs. "It puts us all in danger. It could have been any one of us," Enrique Madrid, another Redford resident, said.

But Jack Zimmermann, a Houston attorney representing Banuelos, said Hernandez set the tragic events in motion by shooting at the Marines. He also noted that four months earlier, Hernandez had fired at Border Patrol agents patrolling the area.

Composition of grand jury questioned

In the February shooting, Hernandez told the Border Patrol agents he thought he was firing at "people coming from Mexico messing with my goats," Zimmermann said.

Hernandez' family has questioned whether he knew he was firing at Marines or, for that matter, whether he was firing at people at all. They say he often used the gun for target practice, and since the Marines wore camouflage, he may not have seen them.

After the shooting, the Pentagon suspended its military border patrols and is currently reviewing its participation in the anti-narcotics effort.

Some residents pointed out that a member of the grand jury is an official of the Border Patrol, the agency in charge of the anti-narcotics mission that ended in Hernandez' death.

They also note that there were two customs agents on the panel.

"It has the appearance of being just," says LaFollette, "but when you consider the composition of the grand jury, it was definitely unjust."

Family to file civil suit

LaFollette and others said that they want the grand jury investigated, and indicated that they will look into the possibility of filing charges against Banuelos' superiors. The Marines testified that they radioed their superiors for permission to load their weapons and fire at Hernandez.

Hernandez's family was not available for comment Friday. Their attorney, Bill Weinacht, has urged them to stay quiet because they are preparing a civil lawsuit for damages.

"Based on all the facts that have come to light in this case," Weinacht said, "it was beyond the control of an individual Marine who was placed in those circumstances, and it was more the responsibility of the governmental agencies that were involved."

Also, federal prosecutors say they have opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting, and the FBI has taken custody of the guns involved in the incident, along with all the other evidence.

The Texas Rangers indicated earlier that in their investigation they found inconsistencies in the Marines' stories.

Hernandez fit description of 'scout'

But Zimmermann, Banuelos' attorney, said that Hernandez, an Hispanic teen-ager carrying a rifle in open country along the border, also fit the description of "scouts" who typically walk ahead of drug traffickers coming across from Mexico on horseback.

"The only reason (Banuelos) fired that round," Zimmerman said, "was because he thought his fellow Marine was going to be killed."

Zimmermann said Banuelos feels badly about the shooting, but believes he's done nothing wrong. He added, "He's 22, but I bet he's aged 10 years in the last three months."

That's no consolation to the people of Redford, who say they are not giving up and will continue to fight for justice in the case, and against the use of troops for border patrols.

Correspondent Charles Zewe and Reuters contributed to this report.


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