By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A U.S. Border Patrol agent killed in an apparent friendly fire incident in Arizona may have shot and wounded a colleague after mistaking him for a drug smuggler in the dark, sparking return fire, a lawyer for the wounded agent said on Thursday.
Nicholas Ivie, 30, was killed last week while responding to a tripped ground sensor in a well-known smuggling corridor near the U.S. border with Mexico. A second agent was wounded in the incident and a third was unharmed.
The FBI has said there were strong preliminary indications that Ivie's death was the result of friendly fire in an accidental shooting in which only Border Patrol agents were involved. It has released scant details on the circumstances.
A Tucson attorney who said he was representing the wounded agent, who has not been publicly identified, said his client returned fire only after being hit first in the ankle and buttocks.
"What probably happened is that Ivie confused my client for being a drug smuggler and fired on him," the attorney, Sean Chapman, said. "My client could only see a muzzle flash because it was dark. He did not return fire until he was struck in the ankle and the flank."
Chapman, who said he did not know if the return fire was responsible for Ivie's death, also raised the possibility that there were others on the scene in addition to the border agents.
He cited "strong evidence" there were drug smugglers in the area at the time and said people were heard speaking Spanish after the shots were fired. He declined to elaborate.
Chapman said he did not expect the agent, now on leave recovering from wounds, to face disciplinary measures.
BURIAL IN UTAH
Ivie, who was buried on Thursday in Utah, was the fourth Border Patrol agent to die in violent circumstances in less than two years in Arizona. His death heightened concern about border security in a state at the forefront of the national immigration debate in a presidential election year.
George McCubbin, president of the 17,000-member National Border Patrol Council told Reuters Ivie had been approaching the area where the trip-wire was triggered from the north as two other agents approached from the south.
"At 1 or 2 in the morning the visibility is bad. You add that brush and it makes it really difficult to see," he said, adding that it was not clear if anyone else had fired at Ivie, causing him to react with deadly force.
"The bottom line is that is that this is a very unfortunate incident. It's just horrible," he said.
There was no mention of the investigation during emotional funeral and graveside services in Utah, where Ivie's brother and fellow border patrol agent, Joel Ivie, remembered him as a man dedicated to his job and family.
Ivie loved his job on the horse patrol and proudly rode a feisty mustang named Mouse, whose ears were rounded from frostbite suffered while living in the wild, Joel Ivie said.
Ivie's toddler daughters, wearing matching black and white dresses and sucking on pacifiers, stayed close to their mother, Christy, as border agents paid tribute at Ivie's grave about 55 miles south of Salt Lake City.
His youngest, 22-month-old Presley, burst into tears with the blast of a 21-gun salute and Christy Ivie clutched a folded American flag and dissolved into tears as agent Ted Stanley led a riderless Mouse behind Nicholas Ivie's casket.
(Additional reporting by Jennifer Dobner in Utah; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bill Trott)