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Hunter sheds his image to help save lives

July 04, 2001|By KELLY GRANT, Staff Writer

OCOTILLO — John Hunter will be the first person to tell you he's not a nice guy.

"I'm not that great of a guy," Hunter says between bites of scrambled egg at a restaurant here just off Interstate 8.

It seems strange then that Hunter would be the one leading efforts to save immigrant lives in Imperial County's deserts.

"I'm not a guy you'd pick out of a lineup to be doing this," Hunter said, adding he belongs to no humanitarian organizations and, as a businessman, his concerns are mostly about making money.

But when it comes to immigrant deaths, Hunter said no one else was stepping up to the plate.

"All the usual suspects were nowhere to be found," he said.

As the day-trippers and Arizona tourists fly past on the interstate, they have little indication of the desert's deadliness. The air-conditioned comfort of their cars does nothing to remind them that dozens of undocumented immigrants die each year trying to cross this region, mostly from the area's heat and lack of water or by drowning in the All-American Canal.

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Some of the worst months are just starting. Though canal drownings are at their highest number in the spring, desert deaths increase dramatically in the summer.

Hunter, 45, became interested in the deaths a few years ago when he read about Operation Gatekeeper pushing illegal immigration east into Imperial County.

"I just got involved because it's close to home," said the Poway resident.

Hunter, who spent much of his adult life as a scientist (he has a Ph.D. in particle physics), has worked in consulting, toy design and business. He currently has one business and is starting a sporting goods company.

Every weekend, however, Hunter is in Imperial County working with other volunteers to maintain about 200 water stations across the desert. He's become such a familiar face, Brenda, the waitress, doesn't even have to ask for his order.

The water station work is not fun.

On this particular day, the temperature hits about 105 degrees, a "nice" day by Hunter's standards.

The water stations often are in remote parts of the desert, accessible by poorly maintained roads that challenge even four-wheel drive vehicles.

As Hunter's SUV lurches down a rocky path, he uses places where bodies have been found as a desert roadmap.

He tosses out phrases like, "A man died one and a half miles that way not too long ago," or "Two women were found along this road."

He is in the middle of a killing field.

As Hunter replaces wind-battered blue flags marking the water stations and replenishes water supplies, he explains why he got involved.

"It's a heinous crime," Hunter said of the desert deaths. "It's the classic thing where people have just turned away."

Hunter says the immigrants who die crossing this desert or the All-American Canal have no voice. Their deaths are easily skipped over. Their pictures don't make the evening news. No one here knows the victims or their families.

While he's the brother of Congressman Duncan Hunter, John Hunter says he has no interest in going into politics.

"Politics takes a lot of patience. You have to really like people to do it," Hunter said.

Mike Harrison, a spokesman for Congressman Duncan Hunter's office, said the congressman has been supportive of his brother's activities.

"He feels his brother's efforts are warranted and for a good cause," Harrison said.

Harrison said while the congressman supports a "strong border and Border Patrol presence," he recognizes many of the immigrants don't know the dangers they face in Imperial County's desert.

That they are entering this country illegally means little to John Hunter.

"Basically, I don't care," he said.

Lawbreakers or not, they don't deserve to die, he said.

While Hunter faced little resistance in putting in water stations, he has not fared as well in his attempt to put lifelines on the All-American.

The Imperial Irrigation District Board of Directors voted last month not to install the lifelines after a safety study revealed the lines might actually increase the drownings by giving crossers a false sense of security.

Hunter criticized the study and its author, questioning the mathematic calculations and author's qualifications. He publicly threatened to sue the board.

The possible liability IID would face if someone were to drown while using the lines was another cause for several directors' concern.

Board President Andy Horne recognizes Hunter's concern but "some of his statements as far as threatening us (legally) haven't been appreciated," Horne said.

Horne says no one on the board wants to see more people die in the canal, but IID has to think of other things, too.

"I don't know that the lifeline issue is totally dead from our standpoint," Horne said.

Horne requested at the last board meeting that Hunter's questions and comments about the lifeline study be forwarded to the author. Horne concedes, however, that he doesn't know how much the conclusion that lifelines may serve as an inducement will change.

"They're afraid to do the right thing," Hunter said of the board.

As far as Hunter is concerned, the lifeline issue is far from over. He stands by his plan to legally challenge the board on its actions and says he'll start this fall after the busy summer water-station season ends.

"When it gets cool they're going to be in for a fight," Hunter said.

Until then, Hunter, who says he prefers to do things rather than talk about them, will continue putting out water at existing stations and work to set up more.

And in the meantime, he'll hope no more lives are lost.

Staff Writer Kelly Grant can be reached at 337-3441.

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