As the white hearse passed slowly below an enormous American flag strung high across Grand Avenue on Friday, firefighters standing at attention on the roadside saluted Walterio “Walter” Nuñez, Jr., a local supervisor for U.S. Customs and Border Protection and long-time resident of Rio Rico who died March 9 in a car crash.
A motorcycle escort led the way for the hearse as a caravan of vehicles from CBP, the Nogales Police Department, Border Patrol and Sheriff’s Office followed behind. The procession traveled from Martinez Funeral Home on Mariposa Road to Sacred Heart Church, where a funeral Mass was held, and then to the Nogales City Cemetery, where Nuñez was laid to rest. The oversized flag on Grand Avenue, just south of the State Route 82 bridge, was hung between two ladder trucks by firefighters from the Nogales Fire Department and Rio Rico Fire District.
Nuñez, 55, died after his SUV was hit head-on by another SUV driving the wrong way on Interstate 19 near Sahuarita. He was off-duty at the time and died at the scene. His wife Laura was in the vehicle at the time and is still recovering at a hospital, said his neighbor and close friend Mario Morales.
Nuñez served with CBP for more than 26 years – 20 of which came while he was stationed in Nogales – and had been a first-line shift supervisor at the time of his death.
Friends described him as an amiable, fit person with a positive attitude.
“Walter is probably the kindest person I’ve ever known,” said Ernesto Reyes, a CBP officer who said he was best friends with Nuñez. “He was humble and gentle and he possessed every quality of a good, good person.
“I felt cheated when this happened because we had so many plans,” Reyes said, adding that Nuñez was close to retirement.
Reyes said Nuñez was a great athlete, and they enjoyed cycling together. He said they also kayaked together on the ocean during their yearly trips to San Carlos, Sonora, and the Riviera Maya in Quintana Roo in Mexico.
Morales, the neighbor, said he and Nuñez worked out together almost every day.
“He was in tip-top physical condition, excellent shape,” he said,
Morales, an officer at the Nogales Police Department, said when he returned to the gym after Nuñez’s death, “it wasn’t the same without Walter there.”
He and Nuñez would go out to breakfast every few weeks and take turns paying for each other’s meals, he said. They met through work about 20 years ago and lived on the same street in Rio Rico.
“(Nuñez) was a very easygoing person, never talked negatively about anybody … was just very pleasant, very soft spoken,” Morales said.
CBP Supervisor Robert Valdez said Nuñez was a very proactive person who always had a smile on his face.
“You could never get mad with him or at him because he always looked at the positive things of life,” Valdez said.
Trooper Kameron Lee, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said Nuñez was traveling south on I-19 between the Pima Mine and Papago road exits at approximately 8:40 p.m. on March 9 when he was stuck head-on by a northbound SUV that crossed the median.
It’s still not clear what caused the northbound vehicle to leave the roadway, Lee said. The driver, who was hospitalized after the crash, had been under investigation for vehicular homicide, but has since died.
Lee could not yet confirm if the driver, 75-year-old Tom Brown of Napa, Calif., died from injuries sustained during the crash.
Nuñez’s death was the second time in less than a year that a Nogales-based CBP officer was killed on I-19.
Edgard Garcia, 41, of Nogales, died on May 6 when, for still-unspecified reasons, his southbound vehicle went through the median, across northbound traffic and struck a tree in Rio Rico.
Nuñez is survived by his wife Laura; mother Socorro Nuñez; daughter Marissa Gonzalez (Reynaldo); sons Walterio Nuñez III (Briana), James Nuñez and German Soto; sisters Martha Klein, Ana Moore, Myrna Quintana and Ana Lopez; and six grandchildren.