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United States v. Ruiz-Hernandez

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

May 10, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before DAVIS, JONES, and HIGGINSON, Circuit Judges.


         Galdino Jose Ruiz-Hernandez helped Patricia Cervantes, a Mexican citizen, enter the United States by first taking a boat across the Rio Grande River and then swimming across a ship channel in Brownsville, Texas. While crossing the ship channel, Cervantes was struck by a passing Coast Guard vessel and killed.

         Ruiz-Hernandez was indicted for one count of conspiracy to bring in, transport, and harbor an alien resulting in death and one count of transporting an alien within the United States for private financial gain and resulting in death. He went to trial and was found guilty of both counts. He now appeals, challenging his convictions and the application of two sentencing enhancements under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Ruiz-Hernandez makes essentially four arguments on appeal: that he did not act in furtherance of Cervantes's unlawful presence in the country; that he did not act for the purpose of financial gain; that Cervantes's death was not reasonably foreseeable; and that his conduct was not the but-for cause of her death. We find those arguments unavailing and affirm.



         The Brownsville Ship Channel lies just north of the Rio Grande River and connects the Port of Brownsville with the Gulf of Mexico. It is approximately 40 feet deep and 500 feet wide. The channel is a high-traffic waterway, travelled day and night by various vessels from small fishing boats to large tankers. There are no lights along the channel, making it very dark at night, and there is no posted speed limit. The nearby Brownsville Shrimp Basin, however, a shrimp-boat docking area located on the north side of the ship channel, is designated as a "no-wake zone, " meaning that vessels must travel slowly to avoid creating a wake that could damage the banks of the basin or cause the small shrimp boats to come untied.


         At 6:15 a.m. on April 24, 2015, Galdino Ruiz-Hernandez approached a security guard in the shrimp basin, telling the guard that someone else had told him that a person had been hit by a boat and needed help. The guard looked for the injured person, but, because it was still dark at the time, was unsuccessful. About an hour later, Police Officer Rolando Doria received a call from a person who (according to the transcript of Doria's testimony) identified himself as "Galdino Jose Luis Hernandez, " stating that a woman had been injured by a vessel in the Brownsville Ship Channel. Doria went to the ship channel, where he was flagged down by Ruiz-Hernandez. Ruiz-Hernandez directed Doria to the woman's body, which was floating in the channel. Her body had multiple lacerations and her right foot was severed. She had on her person a Mexican voter-identification card identifying her as Patricia Guadalupe Garcia Cervantes.

         Later that same morning, Sergeant Jesus Rosas, an investigator with the Cameron County Sheriff's Office, was dispatched to the scene. Ruiz-Hernandez agreed to provide a voluntary statement, and was taken to the sheriff's office. At the time, he was treated as a witness only and not a suspect. He explained to Sergeant Rosas that, at approximately 3:00 a.m. that morning, he and his "distant cousin Pati [Cervantes]" swam across the ship channel wearing inner tubes. Cervantes had told Ruiz-Hernandez that she could not swim very well, but she was about eight feet ahead of Ruiz-Hernandez when a large ship-later identified as a Coast Guard vessel- approached them "travelling very fast and without any light." The ship squarely struck Cervantes. Ruiz-Hernandez found her two minutes later, floating upside down and unresponsive. He tried, unsuccessfully, to resuscitate her, then went to get help.[1]

         After reviewing Ruiz-Hernandez's statement, Sergeant Rosas realized that criminal activity could be involved. Rosas read Ruiz-Hernandez his rights, and Ruiz-Hernandez expanded upon his statement. He explained that he "was only doing a favor [for his] cousin Pati [Cervantes], " who wanted to get away from her abusive husband in Mexico. He said that his other cousin, his co-defendant Gabriel Sanchez, had insisted that he help Cervantes. On April 23, 2015, Sanchez picked Ruiz-Hernandez up from work and drove him to Sanchez's mother-in-law's house in Mexico where Cervantes was staying. They stopped along the way to purchase two inner tubes. A ranchero arrived at the house a little while later, who informed Ruiz-Hernandez that he would charge 6, 000 pesos to take Ruiz-Hernandez and Cervantes across the Rio Grande. The ranchero then took Ruiz-Hernandez and Cervantes to a ranch near the river, where they waited until approximately 9:30 p.m. before crossing by boat. When they left the boat, Ruiz-Hernandez and Cervantes walked through brush for four or five hours to get to the ship channel. They inflated their inner tubes and began to swim across. Ruiz-Hernandez insisted that he "just wanted to help [his] cousin cross[] the river and that no one offered to pay [him] any money in return."

         On April 28, 2015, the Coast Guard contacted Homeland Security Investigations ("HSI") to assist in investigating Cervantes's death. HSI agent Luz Gonzalez then interviewed Ruiz-Hernandez, who provided a similar account to the one he had provided to Sergeant Rosas. Gonzalez also ran a database query for money-service businesses and discovered that there had been a $650 wire transfer from Eleazar Leon Fernandez in New York to Gabriel Sanchez at a Western Union wire-transfer outlet in Brownsville on April 22, 2015. Fernandez explained to Gonzalez that he had paid Sanchez a $650 smuggling fee to bring Cervantes-who was his wife's relative-into the country because she was being abused by her husband. Of that $650, $300 was converted into pesos and given to Ruiz-Hernandez, who then gave it to the ranchero who brought Ruiz-Hernandez and Cervantes across the Rio Grande.

         In the course of his investigation, Gonzalez obtained a pink inner tube that had been recovered by the Coast Guard near where Cervantes's body was found. At trial, he testified that the inner tube was not big enough to fit around an adult's waist, and that it appeared to be a floatation device intended for children to use in a swimming pool. He also testified that, during his investigation, he learned that Ruiz-Hernandez was not related to Cervantes. ...

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