Cash-Strapped Airman Caught Smuggling Migrants, Feds Say

DoD/Senior Airman Cheyenne Powers
DoD/Senior Airman Cheyenne Powers

An active-duty U.S. Air Force serviceman is facing federal charges after Border Patrol agents say they discovered half a dozen undocumented immigrants hiding in his car.

Senior Airman Dejion Daviece Nicholas was arrested near Eloy, Arizona last Saturday, according to a criminal complaint obtained by The Daily Beast. Nicholas is with the 355th Force Support Squadron at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, and enlisted in April 2013, the Air Force Personnel Center told The Daily Beast. The count against Nicholas, transportation of illegal aliens, is a felony which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Nicholas, 28, said he did it because he needed extra cash to make ends meet, the complaint states. An airman of Nicholas’ rank and experience level earns basic pay of roughly $35,000 a year. Nicholas has received one award during his service, the Air Force Achievement Medal, according to an Air Force spokesman.

Davis-Monthan is home to some 11,000 airmen, playing host to, among other things, three A-10C squadrons providing close air support to U.S. forces worldwide. The base is approximately 50 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, and was used as a hub by troops sent to the area in 2018 by ex-President Donald Trump as part of an effort to repel a migrant caravan reportedly making its way to America. It was also where former First Lady Melania Trump landed that June for a tour of U.S. immigration detention facilities for children.

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Nicholas’ case is one of a handful of instances in recent years involving an active member of the armed forces and charges over illegal immigration.

In July 2019, two active-duty Marines were nabbed by the Border Patrol shortly after picking a trio of Mexican nationals in Jacumba Hot Springs, California. The arrests of Lance Cpls. Byron Darnell Law II and David Salazar-Quintero, who were stationed at Camp Pendleton, about an hour north of San Diego, quickly led to 16 more, with all 18 being kicked out of the Corps with less-than-honorable discharges in February 2020.

In December 2019, an unidentified Marine based in California was arrested for allegedly smuggling undocumented immigrants through the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Last March, three active-duty U.S. Army soldiers in Texas were busted for smuggling undocumented immigrants—while in uniform, which they reportedly believed would help them evade arrest.

Nicholas, who helps manage and maintain Davis-Monthan’s athletic and foodservice facilities, was arrested in the early morning hours of Jan. 21, after a Pinal County sheriff’s deputy clocked a black Chevy Impala doing 91 mph on Interstate 10, which has a 75 mph speed limit, the complaint states. When the deputy pulled the car over, he found Nicholas behind the wheel, along with “multiple subjects in the vehicle who were wearing camouflage and attempting to hide,” the filing goes on. The deputy then realized he was dealing with a probable “human smuggling event,” according to the complaint, and summoned Border Patrol.

The responding Border Patrol agents determined that the six people in the car, one of whom was an unaccompanied minor, were citizens of Mexico and Guatemala and had entered the United States without proper immigration paperwork. One man had previously been deported in 2018, the complaint states. All six were arrested, along with Nicholas, whose car was seized and towed to the Casa Grande Border Patrol Station.

Under questioning by agents, Nicholas identified himself as an active member of the Air Force, having just this month started a side job at the University of Arizona.

“Nicholas said he is short on money, and when he was discussing this with a female acquaintance, she said that she would put him in touch with some people she knew,” the complaint states.

The unnamed woman passed along Nicholas’ contact info, and someone subsequently contacted him about picking up some people and driving them to North Phoenix, he told the agents. The first time they got in touch, Nicholas was busy and couldn’t do it, according to the complaint. But when they contacted him again, Nicholas had room on his schedule and said he was promised a fee of $120 per passenger.

A snippet of the federal complaint against Nicholas.
U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona

In order to do the job, Nicholas told the agents, he borrowed a car belonging to his child’s mother. He was then sent a GPS pin location via WhatsApp, which brought him to a trailer, “and that is when six people got into his vehicle,” the complaint states.

The agents asked Nicholas, who stood to make a total of $720 for the run, if he realized the people were undocumented, according to the complaint.

“Nicholas stated that he did not at first, but once he saw the people, he realized what was going on,” it continues. “Nicholas stated he was given a pin location somewhere in the north Phoenix area, and that is where he was heading when he was pulled over.”

Nicholas was released on a personal recognizance bond and is not allowed to travel outside the state without the court’s permission. He was ordered to surrender his passport and is barred from drinking alcohol or using any drugs while out on pretrial release. Nicholas must also participate in a mental health treatment program and maintain weekly contact with his defense attorney, according to the judge’s order.

Bobby Odell Thrasher Jr., Nicholas’ court-appointed lawyer, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Tuesday, It is unclear if Nicholas will face Air Force disciplinary charges in addition to the federal count.

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