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How a judge & assistant district attorney gave a senior Border Patrol agent back his gun & badge after he pled guilty to domestic violence crimes in Imperial Valley, CA.

Updated: May 7


Senior Border Patrol Agent and former El Centro Sector Union President Michael Matzke. (Source: FaceBook)


CONTENT WARNINGS: Domestic violence, suicide.


This is one of those subjects that I hate to be right on, but after studying the Border Patrol's violent culture for over 30 years now, I usually am correct. Year after year, victims of Border Patrol agents connect with me and have allowed me to quietly watch them navigate their domestic violence, sexual assault, family violence and even homicide cases of their loved ones so that I may better understand how the justice system gives agents privileged treatment. Most often, the victims are spouses or partners of the agent. Most often, the victims have tried for years to get their loved ones mental health and substance abuse assistance. In many cases, this includes suicidal intervention as the agency has the highest rates in all of US law enforcement because the US Border Patrol management constantly runs interference. In management's collective mind, they view any agent requesting such help as a liability. Most often, the agent ends up in court where an entire system has been designed to help the agent get back into uniform. This is one such tale.


For nearly 2 years, I have followed the Mike Matzke case. I have made the long drive east from San Diego to Imperial County for a criminal protective order, preliminary hearings, sentencing and interviews with the victim and fellow agents who worked with the defendant. It is common for Border Patrol agents to end up in court for these types of charges; family and domestic violence charges. The agency's culture is one of brutality and misogyny. This culture is then brought home and taken out on their children and spouses/partners. Sarah, an alias and Border Patrol Agent Matzke's fiancé, had previously filed a restraining order against him through Riverside County, California courts but dropped the order fearing it would affect his employment. This is also quite common as the victims are often financially dependent on their abusers.


On July 30, 2022, BPA Matzke's temper got the best of him. According to statements made to investigators and reported in the Imperial County Sheriff's report # 2209-1755, Sarah claimed he was upset because his divorce from his previous marriage had become final. She further stated that he was already drunk when he went to the store for more beer. The following actions by BPA Matzke are corroborated by the video and audio that I have been given copies of: he became angry, yelling and gathering his things when he could not find his duty gun. He went from the front of his white truck to the back seat searching, unable to find his duty weapon. At one point, as he threw things into his backseat, he yelled, "I'M FUCKING INSANE BECAUSE I'M DATING A FUCKING LATINA!" Then he slammed the truck door raising his fists up in front of his face and screamed, "I'M FUCKING PISSED!"


Sarah locked the screen door preventing him from entering the house. He punched at the door and continued to scream, called her a "bitch" and accused her of stealing his things. Ultimately, he kicked the door in. After multiple accusations that Sarah took his duty gun and her repeatedly reminding him that his gun was the first thing he put in his truck, he finally located it in the center console of his truck unlocked... which is not only against Border Patrol policy, but a violation of 2 California state laws for not locking up the gun and the ammunition while not in his possession. He was never charged for either of these crimes.


"I hate every Goddamn thing about you," he said as he lifted the top to the console, pulled out his duty weapon, put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and continued in a hushed voice, "I'm want to fucking kill myself." He then turned the gun towards Sarah, "and I want to fucking kill you!" As a Border Patrol agent, BPA Matzke's gun does not have a safety, and he is required by policy to keep one in the chamber, at the ready at all times.


Sarah yelled, "Babe! Stop!"


None of this is shocking to me. This scene plays out in Border Patrol families every day and has for generations. I am not being hyperbolic. It is so common, the agency has developed unwritten policies about it. While official policy states Border Patrol and their parent agency Customs and Border Protection (CBP) do not tolerate domestic violence, the truth is that they tolerate it immensely.


To be fair to BPA Matzke, he is your typical agent. He is a veteran of Iraq and his attorney, Sean Sullivan, stated in the preliminary hearing that he suffers from PTSD. Whether or not BPA Matzke has been diagnosed or not is irrelevant to me. He has been a Border Patrol agent for over 17 years; there is no doubt in my mind that he likely suffers from that as well. I'm not diagnosing the man, but I recognize his frantic anger in the video, his unwillingness to accept responsibility and his violent actions. I can remember putting my own duty gun in my mouth. There are costs to being an oppressor which is what Border Patrol agents are trained to be. Whether he recognizes this yet or not is not the point.


I've been there.


According to Sarah's preliminary testimony before Judge Monica Lepe-Negrete, this type of behavior was not uncommon for BPA Matzke. The excessive drinking, anger problems and threats of suicide had caused her to reach out to his command at El Centro Sector. This was later confirmed by an El Centro Sector Union Border Patrol agent who worked closely with BPA Matzke as we sat in Denny's after the hearing. He confirmed to me that Sarah had talked to their supervisor about getting him some help for his PTSD, suicidal ideation and alcohol abuse, but he said nothing ever happened. His coworker stated he seemed paranoid, each outburst became more and more violent, more animated at work.


I nodded my head not only to show understanding but because I knew those feelings of paranoia and anger before my attempt.


Border Patrol management response in this case was typical. Publicly, they show their therapy dogs and talk about yoga and meditation. Privately, you are labeled as weak, unable to "hack it," warned you will be drug tested if you go to therapy, that you could lose your job. Publicly, they give us medals when we save lives. Privately, they encourage us not to think of the dead children, women and men as like ourselves but as invaders and criminals. Publicly, they say we are a breed apart, tough, resilient, a Fierce Five Percenter. Privately, they hide our high suicide numbers and leave us off the officer down memorial count.


From the US Border Patrol's perspective, the problem was not BPA Matzke's behavior. It was that it was videotaped and shared with many people, including myself. It was also a problem that the Imperial County Sheriff's Office documented the case quite well to include past incidents. From my perspective, the agency would use every trick in the bag and get away with it if the press did not pick up the story, which they did not. Sarah just wanted to be left alone and for him to get some help.


Once the agency became aware that BPA Matzke was being investigated, that he had been arrested and given a restraining order that took away his right to bear arms for 3 years, they did what they always do and bided their time. This is the most commonly used tactic when agents are arrested. Attorneys for law enforcement agents will file motion after motion after motion delaying hearings and testimony. This causes memories to fade. Victims grow tired of waiting to feel safe, waiting to see justice. They want to move on with their lives. Quite often the charges are dropped.


The Border Patrol informed CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) who also initiated their own investigation. As per policy, a CBP OPR investigator sat in every court hearing and dutifully wrote a report for each visit. As per the norm, this CBP OPR investigator is a former CBP officer himself. Sadly, the victim thought she would get justice because the feds were also investigating. I would believe it when and if I ever saw such a thing.


CBP did not officially suspend BPA Matzke's employment until June 26, 2023, nearly a year after the violent incident. The document is a standard CYA (cover your ass) proposal of termination letter often given to the courts when the agency believes the agent will lose the case. The agency placed him on suspension indefinitely acknowledging the seriousness of the offenses charged. Border Patrol will not officially fire an agent or force them to retire unless prosecutors move forward with the trial. BPA Matzke's case went right up to the point of a jury trial before reaching a plea agreement, and therefore his employment has never been officially terminated.


During the delays, BPA Matzke spent time going to therapy for PTSD and alcohol abuse according to his testimony before Judge Christopher J. Plourd. He was a different man when I sat in the El Centro courtroom on April 23, 2024 for his sentencing: no longer red from anger but from a sunburn. He'd lost weight, and looked handsome in his suit. If he was still drinking, it did not show. Sarah did not appear as she'd fallen victim to the constant delay tactics and was ready to move on with her life by then. According to Assistant District Attorney Eric Alizade, the victim "verbally agreed" to a plea bargain reached with defense attorney Sean Sullivan. This statement was accepted by the court as fact.



Judge Christopher Plourd Assistant DA Eric Alizade


Again, I was not surprised by this verbal agreement. I've seen many of these. What did surprise me was how the judge, ADA and defense attorney all worked together to


make sure BPA Matzke kept his job. There was no doubt that this was their goal as the judge stated so upon opening. If you look up the case number and order the court documents, you will never know about this because like all other hearings there that day and at other hearings for this specific case, they did not provide a court reporter at the people's expense. The only documentation will be clerk notes and no testimony, which is convenient for them as it helps hide how they got around the Lautenberg Amendment which requires law enforcement convicted of domestic violence offenses to be stripped of their 2nd Amendment rights. It's worth noting that constitutionality of this law is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court. As the Project On Government Oversight has shown, domestic violence is a serious problem not only within Border Patrol and CBP, but within all of the Department of Homeland Security which both agencies are under.


The day that BPA Matzke was sentenced was also the day that Judge Plourd had to hear several mental health holds from the sheriff. Unlike these holds, BPA Matzke was not in custody even though his crimes were far more violent and serious. Some had committed theft or burglary, others had been arrested for punching a relative or fighting, but none had pulled a gun and put it in their mouths or aimed it at another or threatened to kill anyone. Yet, they were all in orange jumpsuits, shackled and chained to their feet while BPA Matzke sat with his attorney in the audience, in a nice suit.


As I sat behind him, I wondered if he recognized that his case was also a mental health hold. Was he aware that the only reason he was sitting on this side was because he had a badge and likely some money for a decent attorney? He was the president of the El Centro Sector Union until his arrest. He's helped many agents through this process, and perhaps that was why he was so much calmer. Maybe he knew this was the day he would get his gun back simply because he has seen this outcome again and again.


Judge Plourd held the case until the end of the day. At first I thought they were trying to wait I and one of Sarah's friends out; to see if we would leave. It had been scheduled for 9am, but the defense attorney was late and it was pushed to after lunch when the mental health holds arrived. By the afternoon, all but 2 of the holds remained with their attorneys discussing their cases. Had those with shackles heard the charges against BPA Matzke, heard the sweetheart deal he was offered for crimes more violent and egregious than their own, there might have been some justifiably angry people in that courtroom. As it was, they were removed beforehand and had no idea they were treated differently and ordered to county psychiatric evaluations and held against their will unlike the man sitting in a nice suit before them.


It is not often one gets to see the two justice systems in action within the same courtroom like that. Judge Plourd was kind, calm and patient with everyone in the courtroom. He worked with the attorneys in all cases to try and reach a consensus; he just worked a bit harder for BPA Matzke. At 3:15pm, Judge Plourd stated for the record that the court was in custody of the CBP proposed termination letter of BPA Matzke and of a psychological evaluation ordered by the court. It is apparent from the sentencing that the psychological evaluation found him fit for duty. ADA Alizade and defense attorney Sullivan worked together at the counsels' table to come to an agreement on a criminal protective order. This took several minutes of whispering and then the document was handed to Judge Plourd who then reviewed it for the clerk's record.


It is important to note that California judges can issue 2 types of criminal protection orders from the bench: Domestic Violence CR-160 or Other Than Domestic Violence CR-161. Judges often get around the Lautenberg Amendment by issuing these to law enforcement officers simply because there is a carve-out that allows them to only use their duty weapons for work. Judge Plourd stated he would mark 8E on the CR-160, explaining clearly to BPA Matzke, "This will allow you to be reinstated with your employer at CBP."





This is the 527.9f exemption used in the CR-160 order which states the law enforcement officer must be a "peace officer."







This means that the criminal protective order issued by Judge Plourd to BPA Matzke with the approval of ADA Alizade and Attorney Sullivan is not legal according to California law. I am not an attorney, and perhaps there is some sort of law that allows attorneys and judges to just strike out parts of the laws they don't want to enforce in law enforcement involved domestic violence cases. Judge Plourd also stated that according to California law, the gun used in the crime was to be destroyed. He then looked up at the attorneys and asked with a chuckle if it was his duty gun that was used to commit the crimes. BPA Matzke stated that it was indeed. "Well, we can't destroy your duty weapon if you need it for work can we?" They all agreed that they could not, although I am not sure why. The judge just scratched it out with his pen.


BPA Matzke did not wish to make any statements before sentencing. No apologies or promises to behave were given. Originally, BPA Matzke was charged with 5 misdemeanors (1 count of false imprisonment, 2 counts exhibiting a loaded firearm and 2 counts of vandalism) and 2 felonies (1 count of assault on a person and 1 count of threats to commit a crime resulting in death). In the end, the felonies were dropped by Judge Proud and ADA Alizade. Plourd sentenced the defendant to a suspended sentence, 2 days in jail, 3 years probation, 80 hours community service, mental health treatment, alcohol abuse treatment, waiver of his 4th Amendment rights, no electronic check-in like the other defendants, no travel conditions, to abstain from drugs and alcohol, attend alcohol program at least once a week, attend domestic violence batterer's program, fined only $150 with no domestic violence fees or victim restitution "because of your financial situation."


Original charges against BPA Matzke.


Ultimate charges Matzke was sentenced on.


To say I was angry, doesn't even come close to describing my emotions as I watched these men save BPA Matzke and his career. This constant failure of accountability is why the agency has so much corruption. After the hearing, when I approached ADA Alizade for a business card, he refused to give me one claiming he was out of stock. When I asked his name, he asked me why I wanted to know his name. I again asked his name, and he finally provided it to me. "Why is it so important for you to know my name?"


"I want to make sure I spell it correctly when I write an article about how you just gave a Border Patrol agent back the very gun he used to commit violent felonies," I replied.


He quickly turned away from me and spun back around just as fast, shrugging his shoulders and said, "Whatever."


As I walked out of the courtroom, I encountered Sarah's friend asking the other assistant district attorney who had been sitting with ADA Alizade why they let him get away with violent crimes caught on camera. During the court lunch break, she confessed that she had also spoken with his supervisor trying to get him the help he needed but nothing was ever done. Why did the judge give BPA Matzke back his gun and badge?


"Can you believe that?" I asked her.


"Oh this ADA says he didn't get his job back and he is still terminated," she responded.


I turned to face the short balding man with round glasses, and he smiled at me while nodding in agreement with what the friend had just stated.


"Why are you lying to her?" I demanded. He just looked at me like a kid caught stealing candy. "I just heard the judge say, he was marking the carve-out so he could keep his job." He continued to look at me like he couldn't believe I had the nerve to call him out.


"It's just the way the cookie crumbles I guess," he shrugged his shoulders, smiled like a little boy and walked away.



***



Driving back home through the desert, I screamed curse words and asked nobody what it would take before any one of these agents would be held accountable. I found myself hitting the steering wheel with my hands that only sent sharp nerve pains from my failed suicide attempt into my awareness and away from my anger. I pulled into the first rest area and sat in my car. What did I expect? Everything I told Sarah would happen, happened. I know this system inside and out. There is an exemption, a carve-out, a but for this maneuver for cops when they commit crimes. It is the same one that the rich and powerful have, because cops are the only thing protecting the haves from the have nots. BPA Matzke represents that protection. He also represents an agency that sends boatloads of funding and resources to this community and lots of legal case work for the courts. There is no incentive to hold them accountable when they are the hand that often times feeds the small local governments.


I spent some time sitting there not paying attention to those coming and going, focusing instead on my hands, trying to massage the pain away from my suicide attempt over 9 years ago. I still had a 90 minute painful drive back home to get through with my old hands. I try to not look at their disfigured shapes, but I noticed the long scars just then, and I felt my anger fall away as my heart suddenly softened for BPA Matzke.


Certainly I was different than him. Right? I had never threatened violence against another unless it was in self defense,.... as I write that I realize it is a lie. When I write "against another," I realize now that mentally that has always meant another American to me. Both BPA Matzke and I have enforced laws that have led to tens of thousands of violent deaths. That is not only threatening violence but carrying it out by enforcing deterrence policies and pretending we don't know that death, emotional and physical trauma are all likely possibilities for migrants. Whether BPA Matzke ever sees this concept does not matter to me. I see it. I see myself in him, and I remember how fucked up the job left me and still leaves me.


The justice warrior in me wants to see BPA Matzke lose his job and pay the price just as those other defendants were having to do that day, just as he himself would do to an undocumented migrant. The former agent in me who believed in that agency and worked in those mountains thinking she was protecting her country understands his anger and mental health issues with PTSD. It shouldn't take this much effort to get a Border Patrol agent help. If BPA Matzke's supervisors had ordered evaluations of him and domestic violence programs from the start when Sarah asked, he might not of ended up here. Then again, the trauma we agents endure is of our own making as we volunteer to enforce those laws that intentionally kill and traumatize asylum seekers.


Rest assured agents, the courts got you covered.


Notes:


  • Imperial County Sheriff's report # 2209-1755.

  • People vs Michael Roland Matzke, Superior Court of CA, Imperial County # JCF006359.

  • Imperial County District Attorney Bureau of Investigation Report # F-22-05682.


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