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Border Patrol Criticized After Detainee Death

The deceased has been identified as Steven Keith, 58

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A man's death while in Border Patrol custody on Christmas Day is leading to new concerns about accountability and transparency for the agency. NBC 7’s Wendy Fry has more.

    Few answers have surfaced in the circumstances surrounding a man's Christmas Day death in a holding cell at the Campo Border Patrol station near San Diego.

    A human rights group and an attorney connected to the family have identified the man as 58-year-old Steven Keith.

    Alliance San Diego says Keith's death is only one in a long series of unexplained or questionable deaths of people in Border Patrol custody.

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    A video appears to show a portion of the confrontation that led to the death of an illegal immigrant May 29 at the San Diego-Tijuana border crossing. Humberto Navarrete captured the grainy and dark video on his cellphone. In it Navarrete said Anastasio Hernandez Rojas yelled for help as U.S. Border Patrol agents attempt to subdue him.

    "Since 2010, we have had more than 20 individuals who have died while in Border Patrol custody. We don't have any answers as to what happened in any of those cases. Those are all pending investigation or investigations that have never even started," said Andrea Guerrero, Executive Director of Alliance San Diego.

    According to information released Saturday by U.S. Border Patrol officials, Keith was arrested Christmas Eve at a border checkpoint on Interstate 8 after agents allegedly discovered drug paraphernalia and trace amounts of methamphetamine inside his vehicle.

    San Diego Sector Border Patrol officials said he was arrested for illegal possession of drugs and intent to distribute three pounds of marijuana. He was then taken to a holding cell at the Campo Border Patrol station.

    Six hours after his arrest, Steven Keith was dead.

    Border Patrol officials say the man became incoherent and unresponsive while in the cell. Border Patrol emergency medics administered CPR to the man and called paramedics.

    Not specific to this case, the federal agency has recently pointed to a growing trend of drug smugglers dying after consuming meth, choosing to ingest it rather than being caught with it.

    However, the Border Patrol agency was thrown into the national spotlight after the 2010 tasing death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas. A passerby documented a crowd of Border Patrol agents using a Taser on an immobile, handcuffed Hernandez-Rojas as he begged for help in Spanish. He died shortly after the incident.

    "We haven't seen any outcomes on any of the other cases," Guerrero said. "And so, it should be concerning to the general public and for the family that this is yet another case. We're just mounting up cases is all we're doing. We're not getting any answers."

    The family of Valeria "Monique" Alvarado, a 32-year-old mother, have also sought answers to her Sept. 2012 death. She was fatally shot by a Border Patrol agent while fleeing from a home where an arrest warrant was being served. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has stated the agent who shot her was carried on the hood of her car for several hundred yards before he fired his gun. 

    New details are finally emerging in the death of man killed in a fiery car explosion after being chased by Border Patrol along I-8 in Pine Valley in March 2012.

    Court documents filed in federal court in November confirm for the first time that a Border Patrol agent did use a Taser device seconds before the man's car became engulfed in flames.

    No further details were released by officials about what may have led to Keith's sudden Christmas Day death while in custody.

    An investigation has been launched, and the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office will ultimately determine the man’s cause of death.

    The Department of Homeland Security Office of Investigator General (OIG) is also investigating the incident.

    For their part, San Diego Sector Border Patrol released a statement saying it is “cooperating fully with these investigators to ensure a neutral third party reviews all evidence and information surrounding this unfortunate death.”

    This issue has really come to lawmakers' attention in recent months.
     
    A group of 20 Congressmembers recently wrote to the Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection demanding a meeting to discuss the agency's "use of force" guidelines.
     
    And a recent study by the OIG found more than 1,000 "excessive force" complaints between 2007 and 2012.