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N4T Investigators: Human smuggling scandal deepens

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TUCSON - A second former firefighter with the US Forest Service has been charged with human smuggling for money.

Federal court records show that Darren Lee Whaples and another man were arrested by Border Patrol agents on Feb. 18 in Douglas.

Agents say Whaples went to a stash house they had under surveillance and picked up several suspected undocumented immigrants.

Agents stopped a rental car Whaples was driving, and say that seven undocumented immigrants were in it.

At a detention hearing in federal court last week, Whaples' attorney, Bradley Armstrong, tried to get Whaples released from custody but was denied.

Armstrong said he didn’t know anything about the other cases and declined comment when approached by the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

U.S. District Court Judge D. Thomas Ferraro cited Whaples’ criminal record in keeping him locked up.

Records show the 40-year-old Sierra Vista resident did three stints in state prison from 2004 to 2016, for resisting arrest, burglary, stealing a car, and trafficking in stolen property.

Yet, he was still hired as a seasonal firefighter by the Forest Service.

News 4 Tucson reported two weeks ago that former U.S. Forest Service fire service Captain Juan Corella-Tapia was charged in January with human smuggling for money.

Tapia also has a criminal record. Convicted felons are allowed to hold federal jobs, with some exceptions. None of which prevented the two smuggling suspects from being hired.

The Forest Service declined comment, citing the ongoing criminal investigations.

They did note that Whaples was not employed by the Forest Service when he was arrested.

However, not only was Tapia employed when he was busted, Border Patrol agents say Tapia was smuggling on taxpayers' time, in a Forest Service truck and in uniform.

“I would think Washington's demanding some answers at this point,” said Frank Figliuzzi, the FBI’s former assistant director for counterintelligence.

We told Figliuzzi about the smuggling charges involving the four men, including Israel Pereida, a now-former firefighter with the Sunnyside Volunteer Fire Department in Douglas.

So that's four arrests in two months.

Figliuzzi said, “When you see what looks like now a ring developing, if you're the criminal investigator assigned to this, you need to answer where's the money coming from, follow the money. And someone needs to speak out on where this is coming from? Who's calling the shots?"

Figliuzzi said this could be the tip of the iceberg.

“In my experience, when I see similar things happen in small type communities like this, this is probably not over," he said.

Figliuzzi says if the government knew of the former employees' records, it's time to re-examine its criteria for hiring.

The Sunnyside Volunteer Fire Department where Pereida worked is on the outskirts of Douglas and separate from the City of Douglas Fire Department.

If you have any story you'd like us to investigate, email us at investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 520-955-4444.

Matthew Schwartz

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