SAN DIEGO — A man accused of leading Border Patrol on a high-speed chase with as many as 40 people loaded into his RV had his first day in court Thursday.
Vicente Villegas, a 20-year-old from Riverside, is charged with “high-speed flight from an immigration checkpoint” after allegedly leading agents on the pursuit last December.
Border Patrol first spotted the motor home in the early morning hours of Dec. 12. Officials say they counted about 40 people climbing into the RV shortly after it crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. They met the driver in an area known by agents as “Second Breaks,” not far from the border between San Diego and Imperial counties, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Border Patrol agents first tried to pull the RV over near Old Highway 80 and state Route 94, but Villegas allegedly ignored their lights and sirens, getting up to about 70 mph in the overloaded RV as he entered Interstate 8.
Agents at a Border Patrol checkpoint in Pine Valley later put down a spike strip in hopes of stopping the vehicle, but the driver swerved around it and cut through a dirt parking lot, according to officials. Agents continued chasing the motor home northwest for over two hours, finally calling off the chase and letting the motor home carry on northbound on Interstate 15.
But the accused driver didn’t avoid capture for long.
According to court documents obtained by City News Service, Villegas was arrested two days after the chase on suspicion of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Prosecutors say authorities in Riverside searched his phone after the arrest and found pictures and videos putting Villegas in the driver’s seat during the pursuit.
Investigators say they were also able to tie the motor home to Villegas through his $13,000 purchase of the vehicle from a previous owner. He used a California ID as part of the transaction, according to prosecutors.
With that evidence in hand, federal officials brought their case to U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym, who denied Villegas bond in his appearance Thursday on grounds that he was a “flight risk and a danger to the community.”
“The actions taken by the driver of the RV in this incident endangered not only the lives of the migrants being smuggled, but also the general public and our agents,” San Diego Border Patrol Chief Aaron M. Heitke said in a statement. “I am proud of the dedication and persistence of our agents.”
Villegas faces a maximum five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.