Smuggling plane crash north of Presidio airport injures 5 passengers, pilot still at large

Photo courtesy of Joel Nuñez/Presidio County Sheriff’s Office. A plane crash north of Presidio airport left five wounded and the pilot at large in the aftermath of a presumed human smuggling operation.

PRESIDIO — At 3:51 p.m. on December 30, county emergency services were dispatched to the site of a plane crash in a field north of the Presidio airport. The five passengers, undocumented immigrants suspected of being smuggled into the U.S., were located and offered medical care. Pilot Tobias Penner Peters, who is believed to be part of a human smuggling operation, fled the scene. At press time, he was still at large. The names of the five passengers have not been released to the public.

The plane — a Piper Cherokee 235 registered to Henry Neufeld of Seminole, Texas — did not register a flight plan with any area airports, according to Chase Snodgrass, Presidio County airport director. Snodgrass reported no damage to the facilities at Presidio-Lely Airport, which is unmanned. According to the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office, the plane was under-fueled and overloaded with people, which may have contributed to the accident. 

Area agencies, including the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office, are still seeking information about Peters. He has an address in Seminole, but regularly travels to Ojinaga, Chihuahua. Peters is described as a white man with red hair, approximately 6’ 2” and 185 lbs. The sheriff’s office believes he may have suffered severe head trauma and lost an eye in the incident.

The Sheriff’s office has multiple warrants out for Peters, who could face charges of felony human smuggling, evading arrest and deadly conduct, the agency said.

“We received several calls and information from several sources which confirmed the identity of the pilot,” said Chief Deputy Joel Nuñez. “The case is still under investigation by the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office. If you have additional information, please contact the sheriff’s office.” 

On the afternoon of the incident, eyewitness Adrian Billings had been struggling through his shift at the Presidio clinic. Billings commutes from Alpine once a week as a physician on-call because there isn’t a full-time doctor living in Presidio. “It was a rough day,” he said. 

To cope with the stress, Billings did something he normally doesn’t do on his way home: “I stopped at the bakery, and I bought a Topo Chico.” 

That several-minute delay made all the difference. As Billings was driving north on Highway 67 past the airport, he looked to his left and saw a single-engine aircraft at the end of the runway, struggling to take off. “I’m not a pilot, but you don’t normally see a plane using the entire runway,” he said. “So I thought that was a little bit odd.”

The plane veered off its course and started losing altitude before disappearing over the hills just beyond the airport. A plume of dust filled the sky. “I really thought my eyes were playing tricks on me — did I really just see this plane crash? There was no fire, there was no smoke.”

Billings hurried toward the scene and placed a call for help. Soon a sheriff’s deputy arrived. “I stood on top of the gate [at the airport] and I could make out what I thought was the white top of the cabin,” Billings said. “So we both started running towards it.”

They hurried through the field and across a ravine, where they encountered the first person at the scene. “She was conscious, but she was in a lot of pain,” Billings remembered. 

About 200 yards from the wreckage of the airplane, they could see another woman standing. Billings called out to her, but she didn’t respond and dropped to the ground. “Thankfully, she was okay,” he said. He started asking her questions in Spanish. “She said there were three others that took off walking south, but she couldn’t see them.” Billings called the Texas Department of Public Safety in Alpine and requested that an aircraft be sent down to look for the missing people, who were likely injured. 

Presidio EMS and the local volunteer fire department quickly arrived. Within an hour and a half, a DPS helicopter from Alpine and a medevac helicopter from Fort Stockton were also on the scene, and soon after medevac planes from El Paso and Carlsbad, New Mexico, touched down. Border Patrol and the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office also lent vehicles and manpower to the effort. Mayor John Ferguson and City Administrator Brad Newton directed traffic for the first responders. “I got out there with my neon-colored flag and was waving people in,” Newton said. 

For EMS Director Malynda Richardson, coordinating efforts between multiple agencies is routine. “There were a lot of people working together, but it’s such a small community that we all know each other. When something like that happens, everybody just jumps in and does their job and helps each other out.”

Four of the undocumented passengers were transported away from the scene for medical care — three ended up at Big Bend Regional Medical Center. The fifth passenger refused assistance. Undocumented people who are transported to medical care from emergency scenes are monitored by a Border Patrol agent before they are processed for expulsion. 

“There were the typical type of injuries you’d expect from someone who just fell 200 feet out of the sky,” Richardson recalled. “You get compression injuries, you get broken bones, you get blunt trauma.” 

Those present at the scene estimated that the patients needing medical care were located 150 to 400 yards from the end of the runway. Luckily, the plane touched down on a flat surface.

As far as Customs and Border Protection is concerned, this type of incident — human smuggling by plane — is rare enough that it doesn’t warrant its own statistical category on the agency’s website. CBP operates a Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) throughout the borderlands that can spot low-flying aircraft within a range of 200 miles. 

The agency has delayed sharing information to the public because of the number of organizations collaborating on this investigation. “We’re getting close to releasing a statement, but there’s some more investigative work we want to do first,” explained Landon Hutchens, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection who declined to comment further on the incident.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the plane involved in the December 30 crash as a 1969 single-engine Cessna. The plane is a Piper Cherokee 235. We regret the error.