Bethia Daughenbaugh’s stomach lurched when she spotted the jeans behind a clump of low-lying mesquite bushes. Her mind searched for an explanation. Maybe the person was asleep. Maybe it was just discarded clothing. But in her gut, she knew whoever lay there was dead.
“It was my worst fear come true,” the 65-year-old Green Valley resident said.
A couple more steps and she could see it was a man. He lay under a mesquite by a barbed-wire fence with his head tilted back and arms neatly by his side.
Daughenbaugh and three others made the discovery south of Arivaca Road on Aug. 22 while on patrol with the Green Valley Samaritans, a group of mostly retiree volunteers who search the desert for illegal migrants in distress.
The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office identified the man as Alfonso Salas Villagran from Chicoloapan in the state of Mexico. He died from a combination of heart disease and heat exposure, said Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce Parks. He carried a Mexican voter identification card, an address book and a compass. He was 64.
“My God. That’s nearly the same age as us,” Daughenbaugh said.
Daughenbaugh joined the Samaritans a year and a half ago, soon after moving to Green Valley from Seattle, where she was a social worker for 40 years. She first learned about the large numbers of migrants crossing the border illegally while working a part-time job selling beverages on a Green Valley golf course.
“They’d come up to me on the golf course, asking for directions or wanting to buy some water,” Daughenbaugh said.
Green Valley’s Samaritan group has grown steadily since it was founded two years ago and has 75 regular volunteers who patrol seven days a week.
“These people are dying in our backyard,” said founding member Shura Wallin, 65, who patrols the deserts around Arivaca two mornings a week and was with Daughenbaugh when she found Salas. “We knew we had to do something.”
A week after the discovery, Wallin and Daughenbaugh led around 50 people to the spot where they had found Salas, to hold a memorial service.
Wallin and the Rev. John Fife, a retired minister of Southside Presbyterian Church, dug a hole for a cross inscribed with Salas’ name. Others stacked stones, flowers and incense at the base of the cross. Fife, together with the Rev. Delle McCormick of BorderLinks, a religious-based group that leads educational trips along the border, and the Rev. Bob Carney from St. Francis de Sales Parish, led prayers and songs.
Since October, 146 illegal immigrants are known to have died crossing the Tucson sector, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Salas’ son, Oscar Salas, 47, who drives a taxi near Los Angeles, said his father was headed to Atlanta, where he’d worked in construction for several years. His father had left Atlanta 18 months ago because he decided he was too old to work anymore and wanted to go home. But economic circumstances were so bad in Mexico, and wages so low, that he decided to return to support his wife and younger children, Oscar Salas said.
“I don’t have words enough to thank the people who found my father,” he said in a telephone interview. “Please tell them how much this means to our family. My father was a good man.”