Pilot in Presidio plane crash faces federal human smuggling charges, granted conditional release

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 human smuggling operation.

PECOS — Tobias Penner Peters, identified by authorities as the pilot of a plane that crashed just outside the Presidio-Lely Airport on December 30, made his second appearance in court on Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge David Fannin. There were five undocumented immigrants from Mexico onboard when Peters allegedly crashed, and he is believed to be part of a human smuggling operation. Fannin granted Peters conditional release — after processing, he will be allowed to wait out court proceedings from his home in Seminole. 

Around 4 p.m. on December 30, an eyewitness watched the plane go down just beyond the landing strip at the Presidio airport. Border Patrol and the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) were dispatched to the scene, where they discovered two undocumented people who had been injured. One of the migrants’ injuries were so grave she was life-flighted to a hospital to treat her injuries. 

Border Patrol agents later came upon three more migrants, one of whom reported that Peters had fled the scene and was bleeding profusely from his right eye area. A few days later, the PCSO and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) conducted an interview with one of the undocumented people onboard the plane, who was able to pick out Peters from a photo lineup. According to a criminal complaint, the migrant also said that they had seen him flee the scene with handheld radios, paperwork, a cell phone, and what appeared to be a firearm. 

That day, HSI investigator Coleman Boring filed an affidavit testifying that he had reason to believe Peters had violated federal human smuggling laws. Peters is accused of “transportation of illegal aliens” and “transportation of illegal aliens causing serious bodily injury.” 

The manhunt for Peters continued for months. He was finally arrested by the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office at the Presidio International Bridge on March 25. Bond was initially set at $188,000, and he was held at the Presidio County Jail. On April 4, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Alpine filed a writ of habeas corpus requesting that Peters be “surrendered and delivered” to a U.S. Marshal.

Peters’ preliminary hearing was held on April 12. U.S. Attorney Ashley Hoff filed a motion to detain Peters on the grounds that she believed “a serious risk exist[ed] that the defendant will flee if released on bail” and that he posed “a danger to the community.” 

Fannin denied the motion, instead setting bond at $100,000 and setting conditions of release for Peters. Generally speaking, federal defendants released conditionally may not violate additional federal laws while awaiting sentencing and trial and must respond to the court’s request for DNA sampling and appearances in court. 

Additional conditions granted for Peters will restrict his travel to within Texas and New Mexico, in order to “settle pending legal matters.” He will not be allowed to drink alcohol or travel to Mexico. Fannin ordered that Peters observe a curfew, and will be restricted to his residence in Seminole. The order will take effect “upon processing.” As of press time, it was unclear whether Peters had been released.

Peters has retained two lawyers, neither of whom responded to requests for comment by press time. The U.S. Attorney’s Office also did not respond to a request for comment by press time.