Attorneys representing family members of Ray Mattia are seeking policy changes regarding federal interactions with tribal communities.
TUCSON, Ariz.—Relatives of an Arizona man who was shot and killed by federal agents on sovereign tribal land in May plan to sue U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) over his “wrongful death.”
On Nov. 17, attorneys representing Ray Mattia’s next of kin gathered outside the federal courthouse in Tucson, Arizona, where they announced formal notice of the pending lawsuit under the U.S. Tort Claims Act.
The notice is a necessary first step in allowing the government to respond before the family launches a civil rights lawsuit, according to the family’s attorneys.
“Mr. Mattia’s five siblings and two children seek justice for his wrongful death,” the notice reads. “Mr. Mattia was a loved and valued member of his community. He was a talented artist, storyteller, and a loving father to his children and family.”
“It was murder,” said Martha Mattia of her cousin’s death. “He called for help. They came and killed him,” she told The Epoch Times.
The fatal shooting occurred on the night of May 18 after Mr. Mattia, 56, called tribal police to report illegal immigrants trespassing on his property near the southern border with Mexico.
The Tohono O’odham Nation Police Department requested backup from the Border Patrol in the nearby town of Ajo for a report of shots fired from a rifle, according to the notice.
“Contrary to the objective lack of urgency and imminent harm to anyone, the CBP agents acted aggressively and eventually approached Raymond Mattia’s home. Agents ordered Mr. Mattia out of his house, and he walked out of the front of his home carrying a sheathed hunting knife.
“When directed by the CBP agents, he tossed the knife toward them in a non-threatening and compliant manner.”
The notice said that the agents responded in a “highly aggressive fashion and drew their weapons.”
“Throughout the encounter, Mr. Mattia was compliant and standing in front of his house, with plenty of space between himself and the officers. Use of force policy demands that agents seek to de-escalate interactions by seeking space and time between people.”
Limited body camera footage made public by CBP showed the agents approaching Mr. Mattia in front of his house and ordering him to remove his right hand from his pants pocket.
The footage showed Mr. Mattia abruptly complying to the order, quickly taking out his hand to his right while holding a dark object, which was a cell phone.
At this point, three agents fired multiple rounds at Mr. Mattia, striking him nine times in his thigh area, buttocks, abdomen, eye, and other body parts.
Mr. Matia died of his injuries at the scene after immediate attempts to revive him and requests for air life evacuation failed due to bad weather.
The U.S. Attorney’s office announced in October it would not charge any of the agents with wrongdoing based on the investigation and evidence reviewed with the FBI.
On Oct. 13, tribal leaders issued a joint statement condemning the government’s decision as a “travesty of justice.”
The San Diego legal firms of McKenzie Scott and Stitt Vu Trial Lawyers are representing the Mattia family in the tort case.
A Grievous Injustice
The family hopes to settle the case before moving forward with civil action. In addition to punitive damages, the family seeks agreements for policy changes regarding interactions between federal agents with community members on tribal land.
“We’re here because there was a grievous injustice,” Attorney Tim Scott told The Epoch Times. “The family has rights as victims under the Department of Justice’s guidelines.
“The [DOJ] offered conclusions—not explanations—for why they thought there was no criminal liability.”
He said federal officials “politely but effectively told them to pound sand. They would not answer the most basic questions of what happened.”
During the press conference, Attorney Ryan Stitt said the Border Patrol agents who shot Mr. Mattia nine times did so “without justification” on his property and within sovereign land.
“They murdered him in his front yard” as they “aggressively approached Ray’s home” and “sought to escalate the encounter from inception,” Mr. Stitt said.
“Ray posed no threat to the agents. And he complied with their commands. His compliance was met with a hail of gunfire that shattered an otherwise quiet desert evening.”
Mr. Stitt said Native Americans die in law enforcement encounters at a much higher rate than any other racial group, despite being less than 3 percent of the U.S. population.
“Statistics underscore the gravity of the problem and the urgency of ending unjustified police violence against native people,” he said.
“They deserve justice for his murder. Justice for the loss of their beloved family member. Justice for the many Native Americans who are victims of police violence.”
District of Arizona U.S. Attorney Gary Restaino declined a written invitation to attend the Nov. 17 press conference, saying prosecutors and victim advocates met with Mr. Mattia’s next of kin on Sept. 19.
“They described for you the nature of the investigation, and they generally identified the information they were reviewing, including the publicly available body camera footage, 911 calls, and FBI interviews of over a dozen witnesses, including of the three Border Patrol agents who discharged their weapons,” Mr. Restaino wrote.
“They also informed you of our conclusion that the agents’ use of force in this case does not rise to the level of a federal criminal civil rights violation or a criminal violation under the assimilated Arizona law.”
“We decline your invitation to participate in your press conference. My condolences to the family, and may they cherish their memories of Mr. Mattia.”
Mr. Scott responded at the press conference that, “unlike the Department of Justice, we will not remain silent.”
“They’ve chosen to remain silent in protection of the agents who killed Ray in defiance of their obligation to the public to truthfully answer the questions about what led to his death.”
“The fact that the U.S. Attorney’s office is not showing up here today is telling, but not surprising. We’re not here for stunts; we’re here for the truth. And their silence is deafening.”
A Great Loss
Tohono O’odham Nation member Yvonne Navarez described her uncle’s death as a “great loss to his children, family, and friends.”
“We stand firm in our belief that Ray was approached with deadly and excessive force,” Ms. Navarez said, speaking at the press conference. “Ray was a peaceful, loving member of his community and family. The CBP agents treated him as a threat when Ray was not.
“The agents went in with guns drawn, as if walking into a war zone, with family homes in close proximity. The outcome could have been far more tragic.”
Mr. Stitt said that in a landmark Supreme Court case in 1971, a person could sue state actors for violation of their federal constitutional rights.
However, the court in 1983 began to reverse its position in subsequent decisions, making it harder for plaintiffs to seek justice against federal agents in civil rights cases.
“We understand those realities. We’ll press forward and take them in turn,” Mr. Stitt said. “We’re going to try hard to get a jury trial because we feel a jury of peers is important. The community ought to weigh in on what happened here.”
“Candidly, we’re not optimistic. [CBP has] refused to answer questions. They’ve refused any measure of public accountability. For them to respond to justly settle the lawsuit at this point would be a welcome change and certainly one that we would choose to take. It’s not something we’re anticipating.”
Mr. Scott said it would be up to a jury to decide the monetary value of Mr. Mattia’s life.
“Somebody is going to have to determine what a human life is worth and what they took away from this family,” he said.
In terms of the “market for human life,” wrongful death cases are measured as “tens of millions of dollars,” he said.
Martha Mattia said a just solution would involve federal agencies respecting the sovereignty of tribal land, and that CBP is “not here to kill Indians.”
“Bottom line: We’re people,” she said.
But while Border Patrol are very strict with tribal members, they often don’t challenge the illegal immigrants who are trespassing, the member said of a double standard.
The Epoch Times has reached out to CBP for comment.