TUCSON - He fights fires for the U.S. Forest Service. He is now facing heat in federal court.
Juan Antonio Corella-Tapia is a fire captain with the forest service, based in Douglas. The News 4 Tucson Investigators have learned that Corella-Tapia has been charged with "Transportation of Illegal Aliens for Private Financial Gain."
Court records state that on Jan. 8, Border Patrol agents observed "three illegal aliens" come out of a brushy area and run to a white Dodge pickup truck that was parked on the side of the road. Agents followed and saw the driver, later identified as Corella-Tapia, pull over, and the three individuals ran away. All three were caught and determined to be citizens of Mexico, in the U.S. illegally. A source told the News 4 Tucson Investigators that Corella-Tapia was driving a government vehicle and was in uniform.
Frank Figliuzzi, the former assistant director of counterintelligence with the FBI, said, “This individual accused of these crimes is being paid with our taxpayer dollars. The allegations depict a betrayal of public trust.”
Court records show that a passenger in the truck told Border Patrol agents that Corella-Tapia was receiving instructions over the phone while driving, and he assumed Corella-Tapia was being paid to transport the undocumented immigrants.
And there's more: three weeks later, on Jan. 30, Corella-Tapia was arrested again by Border Patrol agents, in Sulphur Springs Valley. Records show that five undocumented immigrants, including a child, were in the truck, and that they told agents they made arrangements to be smuggled into the U.S. for various amounts of money.
Figliuzzi said, “When you introduce money into the smuggling equation you now have to ask, how much more is there to this, is this the tip of the iceberg? Who's paying the money? Is there a larger criminal organization or enterprise involved?"
Corella-Tapia has pleaded not guilty to all charges. He was released on $5000 bond after his first arrest but has been in federal custody since the second. His attorney and the U.S. Forest Service refused to comment. In fact, the service wouldn't even confirm that Corella-Tapia works there.
[Update: the day after this report aired, the Forest Service sent us this statement: "Juan Antonio Corella-Tapia is currently employed by the USDA Forest Service. We cannot comment further at this time because of the on-going criminal investigation."]
One source said the 35-year-old fire captain has worked for the Forest Service since at least 2017, and his salary is approximately $47,000 a year.
Figliuzzi said, “Here's what's happening behind the scenes right now: they're trying to develop cooperators, informants, people who are incensed about what they're seeing in this public employee. And they're going to try to answer the question: is this just a one-off, a second time? Is it a relative he was helping out? Is there some minor relationship with somebody on the other side of the border? Or is there a much bigger picture here?”
We've also learned that Corella-Tapia has a criminal record. Records show he served two stints totaling three years in state prison for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and a drug charge. Convicted felons are allowed to hold federal jobs, with some exceptions. None of which prohibited Corella-Tapia from being hired.
Figliuzzi, who's not involved in this case, says the forest service needs to ask a lot of questions, such as, “Are there controls in place to know where the people are? Where the vehicles are? There'll be an internal inquiry as well as this now very, very public criminal inquiry.”
At last word, Corella-Tapia was still in federal custody. We will keep you posted on a story that has officials on both sides keeping unusually quiet, a story that could have a lot of moving parts.
If you have any investigative story you would like us to look into, email us at Investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 520-955-4444.