The facade of Raymond Mattia’s one-story home on the Tohono O’odham Nation, on the edge of Arizona’s southern border, is still riddled with bullet holes.
The 58-year-old was killed in a hail of gunfire last month, after stepping outside to find nearly a dozen Border Patrol agents and at least one tribal police officer advancing on his property in the dark. Late last week, a tensely awaited medical examiner’s report ruled the case a homicide, finding that Mattia was shot nine times. Border Patrol body camera footage released at the same time confirmed that what the authorities thought was a gun was in fact Mattia’s cellphone.
For Mattia’s family, more questions arose from the videos than answers, hardening their resolve to find accountability for the loss of a beloved father, brother, and uncle.
“If they’re allowed to get away with this now, it’s not going to stop.”
“We feel after watching the video that he was trying to comply the best he could,” Mattia’s niece, Yvonne Nevarez, told The Intercept. “If they’re allowed to get away with this now, it’s not going to stop.”
On Friday, Tohono O’odham Chair Ned Norris Jr. and Vice Chair Wavalene Saunders issued a statement on the body camera video and autopsy. “The information contained in the report and the body camera footage is graphic and concerning,” it said. “But we must not prejudge the situation and continue to allow investigating agencies to do their fact-finding work.”
The case is still under investigation, with the participation of the Border Patrol’s parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, as well as the FBI and the Tohono O’odham Nation. Of the 10 Border Patrol agents involved in the incident, three opened fire, CBP has said. Those agents are currently on administrative leave. Whether Tohono O’odham police also opened fire is unclear.
The family hoped that the body camera videos would provide answers to their questions. When they arrived at a Tohono O’odham police substation last week to view the footage, however, they found that was not the case. Though CBP had confirmed that all 10 agents involved in the incident were wearing body cameras, the family was shown the same 28-minute edited video the agency released to the public last week, which only included video from the three agents who opened fire.
“We were under the impression that we were going to watch raw footage,” Nevarez said. “The way they put it together feels like a cheap attempt to justify what they did, and it feels like none of them are on our side. It feels like they’re just trying to defend themselves, instead of defending my uncle Ray.”
At around 9 p.m. on May 18, according to CBP, a Border Patrol station in Arizona’s remote west desert received a call for assistance from the Tohono O’odham authorities. The tribal police had received a report of shots fired in Menagers Dam, a Tohono O’odham village on the U.S.-Mexico border, 140 miles southwest of Tucson.
In a recording of the call, a Tohono O’odham police dispatcher reported that two tribal officers were headed to the village. A convoluted story then followed, involving multiple unidentified people and a restraining order, and mentioned a report of a shooting the previous day and a dangerous man in the area with a rifle. No names or addresses were relayed by Tohono O’odham authorities, and the origin of the purported shots was unclear.
“Everybody is saying they heard two,” the dispatcher said. “Nobody can pinpoint where it came from.”
Border Patrol agents mobilized within minutes. At 9:27 p.m., the agents met with an officer from the tribal police department at the Menagers Dam recreation center. The officer gave the agents the name of a man — redacted in the videos released last week — and said shots were fired in the vicinity of his property.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a guessing game trying to find it,” the officer said. “I don’t know exactly where that motherfucker’s at.” They would be approaching two homes with two brothers living in the buildings, he explained; one had a rifle.
“It’s dark as fuck,” he said, as the combined unit headed out, carrying rifles of their own.
At approximately 9:35 p.m., a convoy of seven law enforcement vehicles descended on Mattia’s property. Four minutes after arriving, the officers and agents approached his front door.
Standing outside his home, Mattia was ordered to approach with his hands up. “I am,” he said. Mattia was then ordered to “put it down.” In the body camera footage, an object can be seen tossed away by Mattia after he received the command; it was his sheathed hunting knife. The officers and agents then began shouting at Mattia with escalating intensity.
“Get on your fucking face,” one of the men yelled.
“Put your hands out of your fucking pocket,” ordered another, his gun pointed at Mattia.
Mattia pulled his hand out of his pocket. One second later, the officers and agents let loose of volley of shots — initial reports indicated as many as 38 rounds were fired.
Mattia wheeled around then crumpled to the ground. The officers and agents began screaming at him. “Put your hands up so we can help you,” shouted one. “He’s still got a gun,” yelled another. “Put your hands out, bro,” said a third. “You’re gonna get shot again.”
Face down in the dirt, moaning and bleeding heavily, Mattia did not move. His hands were cuffed behind his back. The authorities, intent on finding a weapon, did not. Instead, they found Mattia’s cellphone.
“They asked him to take his hands out of his pockets. And that’s what he did. And then they shot him.”
“They asked him to drop his weapon,” Nevarez, Mattia’s niece, said. “That’s why he threw his knife toward them, and it was still in its sheath. They asked him to take his hands out of his pockets. And that’s what he did. And then they shot him.”
At 9:46 p.m., the authorities called for an air evacuation but were advised that one could not be provided due to inclement weather. A doctor declared Mattia dead at 10:06 p.m.
Roughly 31 seconds passed from the moment Mattia received his first command to the moment the first shot was fired. His body would remain where he had fallen for nearly seven hours.
In the moments before he was killed, Mattia was on the phone with his older sister, who lives nearby in the village. Requesting that her name be withheld out of fear of retaliation, she described what she saw and heard that night — and what her family has experienced in the weeks since.
Mattia’s sister had been working outside all day. After sundown, she had turned on the TV and begun cooking dinner when her dog barked in the direction of her brother’s home. She texted him to see if everything was OK. Mattia replied that a man was just in his house, demanding to use the phone, presumably after crossing the border.
“He said he argued with him. And then another male walked into his home, and then another,” Mattia’s sister told The Intercept. “There were three of them all together. And he said that he just grabbed his hunting knife and scared them off. And he said they ran.”
The experience was not uncommon in Menagers Dam, but, depending on the situation, it could be unsettling. “Peaceful migrants who are trying to come through for a better life have never been a problem,” Nevarez said. “But there is a lot of illegal activity that happens here with drug smuggling and human traffickers.”
Help was never guaranteed. “It takes hours for anyone to come out here,” Mattia’s sister said. “If they’re not in the area, they don’t make their way over here.” One person she could count on was her brother. “Ray has always been here to protect me in the yard,” she said. “We hear something, our dogs start barking, and he’ll walk around with a flashlight to see what’s going on.”
Mattia told his sister he called authorities to report the men in his home, though which authorities he may have called is unclear. Around the time of the siblings’ text exchange, a convoy of law enforcement vehicles began filing into their village, and armed men began jumping out. Mattia’s sister was alarmed. This time, she called her brother.
“I said, ‘They’re running all crazy,’” she recalled. “I told him, ‘They’re in the wash running toward your house.’”
“I was in shock, just hearing all those gunshots, knowing they were shooting at my brother.”
Mattia’s sister remembered Raymond responding calmly, telling her that he would go outside and talk to the agents. Seconds later, she heard a sound she will never forget: a cacophony of gunfire so heavy that she thought a cross-border shootout was underway. She could see lights flashing around her brother’s property and heard a man’s voice shouting for someone to grab his bag. She immediately knew he was seeking his first-aid kit.
“I was in shock, just hearing all those gunshots, knowing they were shooting at my brother,” she said. “I saw Border Patrol running from vehicle to vehicle, and I shouted to them: ‘What are you guys shooting at? Did you just shoot my brother Raymond?’ And they said, ‘We possibly did.’ And they kept running.”
At a loss for what to do, Mattia’s sister called her children but was so distraught, they could barely understand what she was saying. She decided to drive to the home of her adult niece and nephew — Raymond’s children — and go from there.
Together, the family approached the scene of the shooting. Mattia’s sister was met by the Tohono O’odham police officer who led the operation. “I said, ‘I want to know what happened to Ray — why were they shooting Ray so many times? Why are they all here?’” she recalled asking. “All he told me was, ‘You can’t go over there. It’s a crime scene now.’”
The family stood and watched as Border Patrol agents picked up the bullet casings that littered the ground. An overnight storm rolled in. It began to rain. The family continued to wait. “They were there for a while, and we were just watching them,” Mattia’s sister said. “As I saw them walking by with their guns, it just felt like they were walking in slow motion.”
The hours ticked away. The family was unsure if Mattia was alive or dead. “Nobody’s talking to us. Nobody’s telling us anything,” Mattia’s sister said. Eventually, the worst was confirmed: Mattia was gone. His sister told an investigator that they needed to perform a blessing on the body. “It’s traditional,” she said. The family was denied, though the man did offer to set a candle by Mattia’s corpse.
In the early morning hours, Mattia’s remains were finally loaded into a vehicle. The family said their goodbyes to an unopened body bag.
“We did a blessing for him while he was in the vehicle in a body bag, and we had one of our traditional singers sing a song for him, a traditional song,” Mattia’s sister said. “We all took it very hard.”
Mattia’s body was taken to Tucson.
“I asked the coroner, ‘When we have Ray’s funeral, will we be able to have an open casket?’” his sister said. “She said, ‘His face is OK, but from the neck down — it’s not very good.’”
In the weeks since, Mattia’s sister had a single meeting with a Tohono O’odham investigator. Other than that, the family has not been interviewed by the authorities, including the federal authorities at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security involved in the investigation.
Mattia was a member of the community council in Menagers Dam, where he had been outspoken against the corruption he saw on the border, including corruption involving border law enforcement. He was a traditional singer, an avid hunter, and an artist, making jewelry, pottery, and paintings that honored the borderlands that the Tohono O’odham call home.
For Mattia’s family, none of the information that’s emerged so far has been able to explain why the authorities ended up at his home in the first place. The references to a restraining order and a double shooting in the community the previous day don’t make sense.
“My uncle Ray was out of town celebrating his birthday the night before,” Nevarez said. “The dispatcher states that they couldn’t pinpoint where the shooting was coming from, but yet, when they are there at the rec center, they’re coming straight to my uncle Ray’s house, with their guns drawn.”
“They’re walking around like it’s the war zone,” she said. “This is a village. People live here. Our houses are in close proximity to each other, and there’s people with families and children that live around here.”