New Mexico

BACK BEHIND BARS: Man acquitted in kidnapping of BP agent arrested by Feds

Las Cruces, NM - Within a few hours, the man accused of kidnapping and brutally attacking an off-duty Border Patrol agent went from being declared innocent to finding himself behind bars on federal charges.

A jury Wednesday found Fernando Puga not guilty on state charges of attempted murder, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, aggravated battery causing great bodily harm, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Less than two hours after the not guilty verdict, a U.S. District Court in El Paso issued an arrest warrant for Puga, who once again found himself behind bars. The 3rd Judicial District Attorney's Office in New Mexico told ABC-7 Puga is now facing federal charges for the alleged assault on the Border Patrol agent.

Daniel Sewell, with the district attorney's office sent ABC-7 the following statement: 

"The 3rd Judicial District Attorney's office states that we strongly believe that there was overwhelming evidence to convict, however, the jury decided otherwise. We feel that perhaps the jury was convinced that they were not able to review all of the evidence, as some of the evidence is held by the Federal Agency's ongoing investigation."

State prosecutors said Puga, 33, brutally attacked the Border Patrol agent with a machete, then left him by the Rio Grande to die. When he testified in his defense, Puga told the jury it was another man who attacked Border Patrol Agent Lorenzo Hernandez with the machete.

Investigators found a machete near the scene where they found agent Hernandez's body. The defense told the jury the State never sent the machete for DNA testing to prove - without a reasonable doubt - that Puga used that specific machete to attack agent Hernandez.

After the jury delivered the not guilty verdict, state prosecutors told ABC-7 today is "a horrible day that Lorenzo Hernandez and his family will never forget. His body is still filled with scars. His mind is still filled with scars."

The other suspect arrested in connection to the case, Sergio Ivan Venegas-Quinonez, reportedly reached a plea deal with prosecutors. USA Today reports Venegas-Quinonez pleaded guilty to attempted murder. He is awaiting sentencing. 

IF YOU MISSED THE CLOSING ARGUMENTS LIVE, YOU CAN WATCH THE REPLAY BELOW:

BACKGROUND:

On the night of June 9, 2017, Agent Lorenzo Hernandez was reportedly helping his mother at her tamales stand near the intersection of Stan Roberts Avenue and McCombs Street in Northeast El Paso. 

Sergio Ivan Venegas-Quinonez and Fernando Puga bought tamales at the woman's stand and the agent noticed a "large amount of cash" in the wallet of one of the suspects and a handgun in the waistband of the other suspect.

Court documents state one of the suspects told Hernandez their vehicle had broken down and asked if he could give them a ride. According to court documents obtained by the ABC-7 I-Team, Hernandez said he didn't know the men, but they allegedly told him if he "wanted to save his family and himself to get in the (expletive) car."

Hernandez told his mother he was going to give the men a ride to a gas station. Once in the car, documents state, Quinonez allegedly pointed a gun at Hernandez's ribs and Puga allegedly held a machete to the agent's neck.

Hernandez was forced to drive to an area north of Las Cruces, documents state. During the drive, the suspects allegedly made comments like "Get rid of him now" and "I got this. You'll see where I'm taking him."

Once the men arrived at a rural area near the 6000 block of Shalem Colony Trail, the suspects and Hernandez began fighting. The agent was able to wrestle the gun away from the suspects, but "it was of poor quality and he was unable to fire it at the suspects," a court document states. Investigators later determined the weapon was a pellet gun.

The agent attempted to run away, but Puga allegedly began striking Agent Hernandez with a machete. Hernandez told investigators he was able to fight the men and run away. Later that night, the agent was found with multiple lacerations to his head and arms in an area just west of Las Cruces.

Documents state Hernandez suffered partial amputation to two fingers on his right hand; a possible frontal hemorrhage; and several arm and hand fractures.

Earlier that evening, Doña Ana County Sheriff's Deputies investigated a domestic dispute in Chaparral, the sheriff's office said. There, they learned Vanegas-Quinonez allegedly threatened his girlfriend with what appeared to be a gun. Quinonez left in a vehicle that matched the description of a car later found abandoned in Anthony, Texas. Investigators said the description of Puga and Vanegas-Quinonez they got from the suspect's girlfriend matched the description of the men from Hernandez and his mother.

One June 11, 2017, investigators found a 1994 Nissan Sentra in the vicinity of Anthony, Texas. Investigators learned the vehicle belonged to Quinonez, who abandoned the vehicle after it broke down. Court documents state bloodhound tracking dogs were sent to the scene, where they picked up a scent from the driver's seat. The bloodhouds followed the scent from the abandoned car to the area where Agent Hernandez was attacked, court documents state.

Investigators located Quinonez on June 13, 2017. Under interrogation, Quinonez told agents he met Puga, known as "El Cholo" the night of the attack. Quinonez said he was asked by a friend to give Puga a ride from Las Cruces to El Paso so Puga could pick up some money to buy meth. Later that night, the men allegedly kidnapped Agent Hernandez.

Quinonez told investigators Puga repeatedly hacked away at the agent, "as if he was extremely angry." Quinonez said he, too, felt threatened and "played the part" by pushing the agent around. Vanegas-Quinonez told investigators he was afraid Puga would hack him as well.

Court documents state Quinonez gave investigators a description of Puga and Puga's address in the Las Cruces area. Quinonez accompanied investigators to the scene of the attack, where he told them exactly how the kidnapping and attack played out, court documents state.

Investigators also obtained a search warrant to search Quinonez's cell phone. Agents allegedly found the following text message: "I think we killed a gun in the river ... Shalem Colony Trail and Simpson Farm Road."

A witness working with investigators consensually recorded a conversation with Puga in Las Cruces, documents further state. During the recorded conversation, Puga allegedly admitted to stealing the agent's vehicle and attacking the agent in order to help Quinonez.

After his arrest June 1, 2017, Puga told investigators he was the one kidnapped.


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