SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. — The U.S. Border Patrol agent killed last week in a shooting in southeastern Arizona opened fire on two fellow agents apparently thinking they were armed smugglers and was killed when they returned fire, the head of the Border Patrol agents union said Sunday.
Investigators provided the details to the wife and brother of Utah native Nicholas J. Ivie on Friday but that information wasn't shared with the public. Christy Ivie and Joel Ivie, also a Border Patrol agent, told the rest of the family just prior to a visit from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Border Patrol deputy commissioner David Aguilar later that day in Sierra Vista.
"It was really pretty somber. It was pretty quiet in the room. Nobody really knew how to take it," another brother, Chris Ivie, told the Deseret News on Sunday. "It was a lot easier when you thought it was a bad guy out there."
National Border Patrol Council President George McCubbin recounted how the deadly shooting occurred in an Associated Press story Sunday.
Two sets of agents approached an area where a sensor had been activated early last Tuesday from different directions and encountered each other in an area of heavy brush, he said.
Ivie, 30, apparently opened fire first and wounded one of the other agents but was killed in the return fire.
“I don’t know what it was he saw or heard that triggered this whole event,” McCubbin said. “Unfortunately it resulted in his death and another agent injured.”
Acting Cochise County Sheriff Rod Rothrock confirmed the scenario but would not say if Ivie was the first to shoot, saying that was up to the federal agencies involved.
The new details add to an FBI statement Friday that the shooting appeared to be a friendly fire incident that involved no one but the agents.
Chris Ivie said Napolitano and Aguilar assured the family Nick Ivie didn't do anything wrong, and that they would have done the same thing under the circumstances.
"All it is is a tragic accident," he said. "Nothing more."
Sensors are set up in different areas along the U.S.-Mexico border to detect smugglers or illegal immigrants, with Border Patrol agents responding when they’re set off. The shooting occurred in a rugged hilly area about five miles north of the border near Bisbee, Ariz., an area known for illegal trafficking.
McCubbin and Rothrock both said the two sets of agents knew the others were heading to the area but apparently didn’t know they were so close. McCubbin said he’d been briefed by the agency, while Rothrock’s agency has been involved with the investigation.
“It was dark, very, very rugged terrain, and what they could see of each other was further obscured by the fact that there was brush and cacti and stuff like that between them,” Rothrock said. “I have no doubt that these agents were in as heightened a state of alert as you can get due to the proximity to the border and the history of trafficking in that area.”
Rothrock said that when the agents spotted each other in the dark, “they apparently took defensive postures, which was probably interpreted as aggressive postures. Like readying your weapons, for example.”
Rothrock said he believed the agents’ actions were “appropriate and in accordance with their training had they, in fact, been engaging people involved in illegal activities. Unfortunately, they weren’t engaging people involved in illegal activities, they were engaging each other.”
Chris Ivie said the family was told that all the agents at the scene acted according to their training.
"We don't have any anger in our hearts against the other agents involved in this," he said.
He also described the family's meeting with Napolitano and Aguilar as "pretty special." Much of it centered on the Ivie family's beliefs as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"It did turn out to be a really spiritual experience for all of us," he said. Napolitano and Aguilar "felt the spirit," he said. "They were pretty moved."
"It seemed like the healing started right there in that room," Chris Ivie said.
The first of two funeral services will be held for Nick Ivie on Monday in Sierra Vista.
Ivie's body will return to Utah on an airplane Tuesday night about 9:30 p.m. A law enforcement processional is scheduled for the tarmac at the Salt Lake City International Airport to transport Ivie to a mortuary.
Thursday's service in Utah will now be held at the UCCU Center at Utah Valley University in Orem. It begins at 11 a.m. and is open to the public. Ivie will be buried in the Spanish Fork Cemetery.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the Border Patrol and other federal and local agencies flooded the area with personnel looking for who they believed were assailants who had attacked the agents.
Two people believed to be involved in smuggling activity were arrested by the Mexican government but were apparently not involved at all.
Ivie’s death marked the first fatal shooting of an agent since a deadly 2010 firefight with Mexican bandits that killed U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010 and spawned congressional probes of a botched government gun-smuggling investigation.