When U.S. Border Patrol agents pulled over a vehicle at the Interstate 19 checkpoint last December, a female passenger readily admitted that she was in the country illegally and was directed to a nearby office for further questioning.
“(The Border Patrol agent) sees how traumatized she is. He sees how terrified she is, and he sees the injuries on her face and on her breast and he started to ask her about that,” county prosecutor Kimberly Hunley told a Superior Court jury on Wednesday morning.
During the interview, Hunley said, the woman stated that she had been raped three times while hiding at a stash house for undocumented immigrants in Nogales – a report that later led to the arrest of her alleged assailant, 45-year-old Sergio Alfredo Bernal.
After hearing the evidence against him during a week-long trial, eight female and four male jurors deliberated on Wednesday afternoon and returned to court to deliver their verdict that Bernal was guilty of one count of sexual abuse, as well as five counts of sexual assault.
The guilty verdict came nearly a year after the victim reported the crime to the Border Patrol agents, who then referred the case to the Nogales Police Department on Dec. 18, 2018 for further investigation.
“(The victim’s) tragedy began with a dream,” Hunley said in court, referring to the woman’s decision to enter the United States illegally with the help of human smugglers. “She wanted a better life for her kids… She thought that if she could just get to the United States, she could provide that life for them.”
However, the victim’s hopes soon turned to fear after she was sexually assaulted once by a human smuggler before crossing the border, and three more times by Bernal, the caretaker of a stash house in Nogales, Ariz., Hunley said.
On Dec. 15, 2018, the woman was taken to the stash house where other undocumented immigrants were held before being transported further north, Hunley told the jury during her closing argument. She was left alone inside the house that night, giving Bernal his first opportunity to take advantage of her.
“At some point during the darkness that night, someone walks in the room and taps her on the foot, and that person is Sergio Bernal,” Hunley said. “He says to her, ‘I’ve come to take care of you.’”
Hunley described the victim’s recollection of the first night, stating that Bernal began groping the woman’s breast. He then left the room, only to come back with a knife, threatening to have the woman deported and killed.
Bernal continued to sexually assault the woman, biting into her cheek and breast, which left bruises on her skin, and then engaged in forced intercourse twice that first night, Hunley said. The next night, during the early hours of Dec. 17, Bernal continued to rape the woman.
Later that day, more undocumented immigrants were brought to the stash house and they protectively surrounded the victim that night after hearing about what she had been through.
That same night, Hunley explained, the woman was being transported to Tucson when Border Patrol agents at the I-19 checkpoint detained her, initiating the events that led to the criminal investigation.
As the investigation progressed, law enforcement offered the woman a victim’s visa to remain in the United States. However, she declined and accepted deportation to Mexico to be with her family, and Hunley said that decision showed that the woman’s motivation for pursuing criminal charges was not to secure residency in the United States.
Instead, the woman returned temporarily for the trial on a special law enforcement parole.
Scene of the crimes
Based on the victim’s detailed description of the stash house, NPD officers drove her through areas of Nogales that matched her recollection and asked her to point out any house she recognized.
Upon reaching the Preston Hill neighborhood, the victim quickly pointed out Bernal as her assailant after seeing him standing outside one of the trailer homes.
But defense lawyer Mark Larkin argued that, while he had no doubt that the victim was being honest about being assaulted, she was accusing the wrong person of having victimized her.
“She just had a miserable couple of days. She’s been attacked, dumped in this place that’s filthy, that’s frightening, it’s dark,” Larkin said. “She’s heading back toward the trailer of the scene of this assault and she sees a couple of guys outside and something triggers her.”
That moment brought back the hurtful memories of the assaults, he said, and the victim quickly pointed out the first man that she saw outside the scene of the crimes.
Larkin added that it would have also been impossible for the victim to have seen her assailant’s face, as the assaults took place inside a dark house with no electricity.
But Hunley countered that Bernal had used his cellphone to light his way around the house, giving the victim the opportunity to make out his features in the dark. In addition, the victim’s description of her assailant during the initial interviews was a near-perfect match of Bernal’s body.
“You’d have to believe that if she just picked someone, she picked Bernal… just by coincidence and he happened to match all the other things that we talked about,” Hunley said of his description.
And while Larkin insisted that medical exams of the victim’s body hadn’t tested fully positive for Bernal’s DNA, Hunley added that there were still strong samples of his DNA collected from the victim’s underwear and breast.
After the jurors deliberated and returned guilty verdicts on Wednesday afternoon, they also found that there were aggravating factors to the crimes, including the use or threatened use of serious physical injury; physical, emotional or financial harm to the victim; and committing the offense while on probation.
Speaking to the NI on Thursday morning, Hunley added that Bernal had four prior felony convictions, which would also enhance his punishment.
“I’m just so grateful, on behalf of the victim, that justice was done here,” Hunley said.
Bernal’s sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 16 at Santa Cruz County Superior Court.