First, came a tip. Then, not so discreetly, investigators say, an Amtrak passenger stowed three bags in another row and returned to his seat just as drug enforcement agents boarded a crowded train on Monday morning during a stop in Tucson, Ariz.
A search of those bags on the train platform yielded more than five pounds of “bulk marijuana,” 50 packages of marijuana edibles (3.5-gram servings of “Gooberz”) and other cannabis products, according to a federal criminal complaint.
That was when a “routine” sweep by a drug enforcement task force turned deadly: One federal agent was killed, another was critically wounded and a Tucson police officer was hospitalized in stable condition after a second suspect who had gone back onto the train opened fire on them.
The complaint, which was filed on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Arizona, revealed new details about the sequence of events that led to the shooting, including the name of one of the men, Devonte Okeith Mathis, who was charged with intent to distribute marijuana.
The gunman was shot and killed in the exchange with the task force members, said the complaint, which did not identify him. He had been seated across the aisle from Mr. Mathis, and both men were traveling from California to Texas, the authorities said.
It was not immediately clear if Mr. Mathis, 22, of Mesquite, Texas, had a lawyer — none were listed on court records. He was scheduled to appear in federal court on Wednesday afternoon in Tucson.
In Texas, Mr. Mathis had previously been charged with possession with intent to manufacture or deliver a controlled substance in 2018, according to court records, which showed that his case was pending. Public records also listed a December 2020 sentence in an aggravated assault case involving a deadly weapon. The outcome of that case was not immediately clear.
Even though it is legal for people 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use in Arizona under a law passed last November, possession of any amount of marijuana is a federal crime. Trafficking remains illegal both at the federal level and in Arizona, where there has been tension over marijuana possession laws.
Valena Beety, a law professor and deputy director of the Academy for Justice at Arizona State University, said in an interview on Wednesday that the disconnect between the state and federal law had created confusion.
“You’re in a state where recreational marijuana has been legalized, and yet there’s still the impact of the D.E.A., you know, federal officers who can arrest you for violating a federal law,” Professor Beety said. “It’s been a tension for years. These are the kinds of tragedies that arise over this confusion.”
But Professor Beety pointed out that there is no ambiguity in the law as far as the amount of marijuana that was seized and the trafficking charge.
On Tuesday, the Drug Enforcement Administration identified the agent who was killed as Michael G. Garbo, a group supervisor who had worked for the agency for more than 16 years combating criminal drug traffickers, from the southwestern United States to Kabul, Afghanistan. Officials did not release the names of the other injured officers or offer details on their conditions.
Federal agents said in the criminal complaint that they were investigating a tip that they had received from Amtrak when they encountered the two men on the train. The complaint did not elaborate on the nature of the tip.
When an agent asked Mr. Mathis if the bags belonged to him, he denied it and drew further suspicion, the complaint said. Inside a blue backpack, the agent found two bulk packages of marijuana, according to investigators, who said that the gunman returned to the train as police dogs sniffed the bags. When agents began to approach the gunman on the upper deck of the double-decker train, he opened fire.
The gunfire prompted the evacuation of the Sunset Limited Train 2, which had been carrying 137 passengers and 11 crew members at the time of the shooting. All of those aboard the train, which had been traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans, were safely evacuated, an Amtrak spokesman said.
Vimal Patel contributed reporting.
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