A top immigration official who shot himself while driving north of Tucson last year was seen trying to shred a large amount of documents before his death, records show.
Whether or not the documents shed light on the suicide, those closest to Thomas DeRouchey say one thing is clear: He was deeply troubled by his agency’s handling of immigration enforcement in Arizona.
"I believe Tom shot himself, but I don’t understand the reasons," said DeRouchey’s sister, Denise Salyers. "A lot of things don’t seem very kosher and I still wonder."
DeRouchey, 45, was dedicated to his job as acting chief of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau in Phoenix. So it was unusual that on the morning of March 16, 2004, he was late to an 8:15 a.m. meeting in Tucson with Border Patrol officials. He also was supposed to arrive early for a news conference at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to announce a new border control initiative.
At 8:30 a.m., traveling at 75 mph on Interstate 10 near Marana, DeRouchey apparently put the barrel of his .40-caliber handgun under his chin and pulled the trigger. Witnesses saw his white sedan suddenly bounce off guardrails and spin out of control.
Marana police detectives determined the death was a suicide and set out to find a motive.
DeRouchey was the Phoenix bureau’s first acting chief of ICE, a new agency formed two years ago in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The agency was created by merging DeRouchey’s former agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, with the U.S. Customs Service and two smaller agencies.
A heavy smoker and coffee drinker, DeRouchey, a bachelor, had moved from Atlanta and had been living out of a suitcase in Phoenix hotels for more than a year, working 12 or more hours a day.
No suicide note was reported found in his car or residences.
A day after the suicide, Marana police detective Terry Evans interviewed ICE supervisor Kyle Barnette, who told him DeRouchey had recently been seen placing documents into a shredding bin. While that in itself wasn’t unusual, Barnette said he was concerned by the volume of documents being placed into the bin, Evans’ report states.
Barnette, who served as acting ICE chief for three months after DeRouchey’s death before transferring to ICE’s New Orleans office, declined comment Friday.
Evans said Barnette agreed to let police look at the documents in the shredding bin, which had not yet been destroyed, and also to examine DeRouchey’s computer.
"You want to look at stuff like that on any type of investigation," Evans said, adding that he hoped to provide answers to DeRouchey’s family.
But ICE later denied Marana police that opportunity. After a meeting between Marana police supervisors and ICE officials, Evans was told the investigation was finished.
"I wasn’t real happy about it," Evans said.
Marana police Lt. Joe Carrasco said he terminated the investigation after meeting with ICE because it had been determined DeRouchey’s death was not a crime. He figured ICE could look for the motive behind the suicide, he said.
ICE’s internal affairs unit did begin investigating the suicide and requested copies of everything Marana had on the case, records show. Officials at ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C., would not say last week whether that investigation has concluded.
A few weeks before he killed himself, DeRouchey learned his agency did not plan to retain him as chief of the Phoenix bureau. People who knew him said he was not pleased, but did not seem upset over the decision, either. DeRouchey was eligible for retirement in four years and seemed excited about a possible new job for ICE in Washington, D.C., friends said.
Yet DeRouchey had an ongoing frustration with the agency and his supervisors, said retired ICE agent Alma Goss. DeRouchey called her a couple of days before his death and said he was "tired" of the lack of support the Phoenix agency received. He said he had recently complained to a top ICE official that the agency needed to get its act together, Goss said.
Six months before DeRouchey’s death, ICE launched "Operation ICE Storm," a new effort to bust up immigrantsmuggling gangs that made Arizona the No. 1 state for illegal border crossings. At the time, officials said ICE Storm would add about 50 temporary agents to the Phoenix bureau, which staffed the same number of full-time agents.
DeRouchey had "asked for a lot of personnel," Goss said. "What he got was maybe half of what he requested."
Like other ICE agents nationwide, DeRouchey was uneasy with the merger of INS and Customs, Goss said.
"The Customs Service was maybe three to four times bigger than Immigration offices — we initially kind of got lost in the shuffle," said Goss, who also had an INS background. "There were a lot of things that could have been done better."
Politics played a big role in the office as agents vied for promotions, "but Tom didn’t care about the politics. Tom only wanted to get the work done," Goss said.
Headquarters sent the new agents, but it wasn’t that wellcoordinated, Goss said. "There were people sent that didn’t have the experience, and that’s nobody’s fault because we were a new agency," Goss said.
One problem was that many of the former Customs Service agents now working for ICE didn’t speak Spanish.
DeRouchey’s frustration started when he joined the new office in Phoenix and saw agents "sitting at their desks" instead of going out to arrest people, said Bill Griffin, a retired ICE agent who lives in Flagstaff.
DeRouchey got the office moving and developed ties with local police departments, but the business of smuggling immigrants continued to flourish, he said.
After Barnette left the office in June 2004, former Customs agent Mike Turner was named permanent ICE chief. Seven months later, Turner left ICE to work for another agency. Kent Johansson is the current acting chief.
DeRouchey’s family hopes to someday learn what ICE knows about the reasons behind the agent’s suicide, Salyers said.
"We may find out things we don’t want to know, but it would still ease your mind more," she said.