Why this matters

A 19-year-old U.S. citizen’s death in a chase with Border Patrol – and their silence on the case – raises serious questions about how and when agents use their powers and what the public loses in the process.

Lea este artículo en español aquí.

Pushing 100 miles per hour on Interstate 8 westbound, Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha dialed his girlfriend in a panic – it was the last call he ever made. 

“I’m shaking so much. I’m scared,” he told Amairani Rodriguez over the phone as his car barreled down the freeway. The United States Border Patrol was chasing him. He said he didn’t know why. 

Police records show Border Patrol agents tried to pull over Saldaña Rocha, and when he didn’t stop, they sped after him. Nearly 20 minutes and 30 miles later, his white Infiniti swerved into the freeway embankment, striking two trees before it was sent airborne, spinning and finally colliding with a third tree. 

“Then the call just went silent. And I remember screaming his name through the phone,” Rodriguez said. “And then I didn’t hear anything from him until I heard the (police) radios.” 

Saldaña Rocha, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen with no criminal record aside from a ticket for street racing, died at the scene from multiple blunt force injuries. A search by authorities for additional crash victims at the scene turned up empty. The trunk contained only a soccer bag.  

Listen to 911 audio

Audio recording of 911 callers reporting the crash to CHP. Recording is edited for brevity.

Read the 911 audio transcript:

CHP Dispatcher: “911 emergency, what are you reporting?”

Caller 1: “Hey man, we saw a car just crash on the highway eight and the Border Patrol were chasing him, and went off the ramp between Magnolia and Second Street.”

CHP Dispatcher: “Eight east or eight west?”

Caller 1: “West, westbound. He was driving a little fast white car and hauled ass, crashed and Border Patrol went flying by chasing him, but he went off and they didn’t see him go off.”

Caller 1: “They’re in the trees. I think it hit like, I mean it, it didn’t look good at all.”

CHP Dispatcher: “Okay.”

Caller 2: “There was so much dirt. I think he just went down the embankment.”

CHP Dispatcher: “Okay. Went down the right shoulder.”

Caller 2: “There was a–”

CHP Dispatcher: “Okay.”

Caller 2: “Tahoe SUV Border Patrol agent–”

CHP Dispatcher: “Yeah.”

Caller 2: “I saw him behind it. He kept going eight west.

CHP Dispatcher: “Okay, alright.”

Caller 2: I don’t know if he was going after him or not.”

Border Patrol’s overseeing agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, has repeatedly refused to say why they tried to pull over and then chase Saldaña Rocha. The agency has only stated that its internal affairs unit reviewed the death and reported it to Congress as required. 

Pictures and other objects form an altar to remember Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha outside of his family’s home, Feb. 8, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

But internal records obtained from CBP, though redacted, indicate only one violation: failing to yield when agents tried to pull him over. 

Border Patrol also claims that its agents stopped chasing Saldaña Rocha before he crashed and died. An investigative report from the California Highway Patrol says otherwise. 

In the nearly 18 months since his death, the family’s grief has at times turned to frustration as it struggles to move on without answers to burning questions: Why did agents decide to pursue Saldaña Rocha? Why did they suspect criminal activity? And why did he flee? 

“We only want justice, if he was wrong or whatever it was. Or if there’s something we don’t know and it happened because of that. That’s what we want,” the brother, Jose Saldaña Rocha, said in Spanish. 

Saldaña Rocha is the 11th person to die during a car chase with Border Patrol in San Diego County since 2017, according to local news reports.

More details from CBP could answer urgent questions about how and when agents decide to pull over drivers and engage in vehicle pursuits – one of the deadliest border enforcement strategies – within the agency’s enforcement zone, where two-thirds of the U.S. population resides. 

Amairani Rodriguez is photographed near the gravesite of her boyfriend Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha, Feb. 8, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)
Jose Saldaña Rocha is photographed outside his family’s home on Feb. 20, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“Without any of that information, without any of that transparency, the public has no way to know whether the agency is taking seriously its responsibility to protect public safety,” according to Rebecca Sheff, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico. 

More details could also help give closure to a grieving family. 

“We hope we can know what happened. That they give us answers to our questions. God willing,” said a family member close to Saldaña Rocha, who did not want to be named. 

The chase 

Nearly 20 minutes and 30 miles spanned between the time Border Patrol agents started chasing Saldaña Rocha and when he crashed into an embankment off I-8 in El Cajon. 

Through a Freedom of Information Act records request, inewsource obtained Border Patrol’s call log for the incident and eight memos written by agents involved that day. Those documents are heavily redacted. CBP defended those redactions, saying the disclosure of the information could lead to “circumvention of the law.” 

Border Patrol claimed to have terminated the chase well before Saldaña Rocha crashed, and one document even described the chase as a “pursuit without injuries.” But documents from other agencies obtained by inewsource tell a different story.

inewsource reconstructed a timeline of the crash, which happened on a Saturday afternoon in April 2022, based on records from Border Patrol, California Highway Patrol, or CHP, and the El Cajon police and fire departments. They show:

Border Patrol started pursuing Saldaña Rocha near Pine Valley, first spotting his car around 2:40 p.m. 

The rural, sparsely populated area has a strong Border Patrol presence with a checkpoint on the westbound I-8 and the agency’s nearby Campo station. 

Border Patrol agents ran a check on Saldaña Rocha’s license plate and tried to pull him over for reasons not stated, but he didn’t stop, and the chase ensued. 

An agent at the checkpoint deployed a spike strip, a device meant to deflate the tires of a fleeing suspect’s car, but said it did not make contact with the Infiniti. 

Saldaña Rocha called his girlfriend, Rodriguez, sometime between 2:40 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., during the chase. Rodriguez said he was talking fast: At first he saw an “undercover cop” following him and then Border Patrol chasing him. At some point he saw the spike strip thrown at his car.

At 2:47 p.m., just three minutes after the pursuit began, agents lost sight of the Infiniti and a supervisor ordered the pursuit terminated, according to Border Patrol reports. 

The area looking south from Interstate 8 east of Descanso is shown on Sept. 11, 2023. Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha covered a 30 mile stretch of the highway through rural areas between when Border Patrol agents began chasing him and when he fatally crashed. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

But agents kept eyes on Saldaña Rocha. In the seven minutes before he crashed, at least four agents reported seeing his car on I-8. 

Witnesses who were driving on the I-8 said Saldaña Rocha was traveling between 90 to over 100 miles per hour. One described him as “rapidly overtaking traffic,” and another said he nearly clipped her vehicle as he “jerked back,” cutting across freeway lanes.

For a moment Saldaña Rocha thought he lost them, Rodriguez recalled him telling her over the phone. Suddenly, he saw Border Patrol waiting for him “on the side.” Those were his last words.

At that moment, Saldaña Rocha may have seen an agent who reported seeing his Infiniti at the Los Coches Road exit. The agent started following Saldaña Rocha, trying to catch up, without turning on his lights and sirens. 

But the agent lost sight when the Infiniti veered onto the right shoulder at Second Street. That was at 3:03 p.m. 

Within the same minute, CHP received a 911 call reporting that a white sedan had just crashed on I-8 westbound at the Mollison Avenue exit – less than a mile from where Saldaña Rocha was just seen.  

As first responders rushed to the scene, CHP notified Border Patrol about the crash. The Border Patrol official who received the message seemed not to have known about the crash prior. 

Listen to 911 audio

Audio recording of a CHP official calling Border Patrol’s communication center about the crash.

Read the 911 audio transcript:

Border Patrol: “(Inaudible) … This is Bianca speaking, how can I help you?”

CHP: “Hey Bianca, CHP”

Border Patrol: “Hey” 

CHP: “Hey, you guys were in pursuit of a BMW?”

Border Patrol: “It was an Infiniti. A white Infiniti Q–”

CHP: “And your guys lost it?”

Border Patrol: “Yes, we did lose it.”

CHP: “He actually crashed between Second and Magnolia.”

Border Patrol: “Second and Magnolia?”

CHP: “He went over the side of the road and I have a witness that saw your agents chasing him and he ended up going over the side and your agents just flew right by him.”

Border Patrol: “Okay, perfect. I’ll let them know.”

Several witnesses said Border Patrol sped by immediately after the crash without stopping and possibly without seeing it. 

One caller told 911 that “Border Patrol went flying by chasing him, but he went off and they didn’t see him go off.” Another witness later told CHP that Border Patrol was “without a doubt” chasing Saldaña Rocha when he crashed. 

Even a CHP officer saw a Border Patrol unit “with full code 3 red and blue lights activated” traveling on I-8 after Saldaña Rocha crashed. 

Brian Pennings, a public information sergeant with CHP’s Border Division, said it is “not uncommon to have conflicting opinions and statements” about a crash but that whether or not Border Patrol was chasing Saldaña Rocha is irrelevant to the purpose of their investigation.  

“Our job is to document the facts and find out the cause of the collision,” Pennings said. 

CHP’s report found that Saldaña Rocha’s dangerous driving violated state law, endangered others on the road and threatened property. The report’s conclusion, which was based on witness statements, physical evidence, vehicle damage and injuries, also noted that Border Patrol agents “were actively pursuing” Saldaña Rocha.

The site along Interstate 8 in El Cajon where Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha died in a fatal car collision is shown on Sept. 18, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

CHP, El Cajon police and fire and Border Patrol personnel searched the scene, underneath the car and the surrounding area for “additional victims.” CHP’s call log noted “(possible) ejections” and “(possibly) someone in the trunk trying to get him out.” 

But the passenger seat airbag never deployed, indicating no one was sitting beside Saldaña Rocha when he crashed, and the trunk contained only his soccer bag. 

By 3:11 p.m., medics on the scene declared Saldaña Rocha dead. Soon after, Border Patrol agents were “refusing to give statements” to CHP officers at the scene who were responsible for investigating the crash. 

A report from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Department found no signs of alcohol or illicit drugs in or near the vehicle, and Saldaña Rocha’s toxicology report came back negative. 

In hindsight, Rodriguez, also 19 at the time of the crash, said she doesn’t know why she didn’t tell her boyfriend to pull over. 

“It just happened so fast,” she said. “I didn’t think about it.”

‘Thousands of questions and zero answers’

Saldaña Rocha’s room at his parents’ home in Pauma Valley looks just as it did the day he died – his soccer bag and hat still sit on his bed, and trophies adorn the wall.

His family – like his room – has been frozen in time since the crash. Too many unanswered questions and silence from the agencies involved has only deepened their suspicion and frustration. 

“What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen?” said the family member close to Saldaña Rocha. “There are thousands of questions and zero answers.” 

The bedroom of Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha is shown on Feb. 8, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Beyond the family’s grief, CBP’s silence also raises questions about whether agents followed department policy and the law in attempting to pull over Saldaña Rocha and then chasing him. 

To pull over a driver, Border Patrol agents, like all law enforcement officers, need to have reasonable suspicion, or “an objective reason to suspect” criminal activity. Border Patrol’s jurisdiction is limited to immigration or other federal offenses. 

But according to Eva Bitran, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, agents commonly use race or otherwise cite insufficient reasons – including not making eye contact with the agent – for pulling drivers over. 

That assessment is based on hundreds of arrest reports from CBP which Bitran’s team reviewed, and the practice runs afoul of Fourth Amendment protections meant to prevent arbitrary searches and seizures, she said.

CBP has refused to answer questions about their basis for reasonable suspicion to pull over Saldaña Rocha. And its internal records point only to Saldaña Rocha’s failure to yield. 

When you give to inewsource, you shine a light in dark places and tell the stories that might otherwise go untold, just like this investigation you are reading now. Stand for truth with us today. Give now.

An agency form for vehicle pursuits included a checkbox of options to indicate the “suspect’s activity.” In the form for Saldaña Rocha’s chase, agents checked only the box for failure to yield, leaving options for smuggling drugs or people, along with several other possible offenses, unchecked. 

Only one record from CHP suggests something else. A line in CHP’s call log from the incident notes that Saldaña Rocha was suspected of “illegal smuggling.” But Pennings, CHP’s public information sergeant, could not confirm where that information came from. He said sometimes dispatchers get bad information from callers or make assumptions when they receive calls relating to Border Patrol. 

None of the documents obtained by inewsource make additional reference to smuggling nor do they show that law enforcement found evidence at the scene to confirm Saldaña Rocha was involved in smuggling.

There could be legitimate motives for withholding the reason why agents tried to pull Saldaña Rocha over, but without hearing from the agency, it’s difficult to know, Bitran said.

Still, the agency could do more to show the public they’re playing by the rules – their own policies and the law, according to Sheff, the attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico,

“The lack of transparency here, the lack of the agency being forthcoming about what happened, what investigations have uncovered and what steps might be taken to ensure accountability for any misconduct is really egregious,” Sheff said. 

CHP’s crash investigation, the only investigative report on Saldaña Rocha’s death made public so far, doesn’t answer the family’s most pressing questions. It raises more. 

The report leaves out that agents tried to use a spike strip to stop his car. 

A witness of the crash told CHP that Border Patrol asked to meet at a Starbucks but never showed up.

The family never recovered Saldaña Rocha’s phone from his car, and were told the state didn’t have it. 

Jose Saldaña Rocha is photographed on his brother’s motorcycle outside of their family home, Feb. 20, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)
Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha’s mother stands in front of an altar for her son and a monthly gathering of family and friends to remember him, Feb. 20, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“What the family wants to know is that if he was doing bad things, that they give us evidence that he was doing something bad,” another family member close to Saldaña Rocha said. 

Saldaña Rocha’s older brother was the first in the family to learn he’d died that day.

Jose Saldaña Rocha and his uncle went looking for him after hearing about the chase from Rodriguez. The brother drove for an hour with his uncle in the passenger seat searching online for crashes. Then they passed a collision on I-8. 

“I knew that was definitely him. And if he wasn’t responding, it’s because obviously something happened to him,” he said. 

By that time, Border Patrol agents had left the scene. A CHP officer interviewed the brother, asking about his Saldaña Rocha’s state of mind and whereabouts that day. 

It started like any Saturday, he remembered. They went to work early in the morning, returned home around noon and Saldaña Rocha left between 1:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. without saying where he was going. They planned to meet in Escondido later that day to play volleyball.

Instead, Jose Saldaña Rocha watched a tow truck pull his brother’s car from the embankment. Medics had already taken his body away. 

“I thought about everything else except for that. I didn’t think about that for one second. I was like, nah, he’s fine. He’s good.”

Explore more stories from our investigation into Border Patrol’s vehicle pursuit policies.

Type of Content

Investigative/Enterprise: In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...