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Head-on crash rooted in illegal immigration case

By Jamie Satterfield
knoxnews.com

An illegal immigrant on Tuesday who once worked on the exterior of a federal courthouse found himself inside one.

Mario Roberto Diaz-Mourillo racked up a four-year prison term for driving the wrong way on a Great Smoky Mountains National Park roadway known as the Spur and crashing head-on into a car full of Florida tourists, leaving two of them with permanent injuries.

But Diaz-Mourillo's case was as much about illegal immigration, lax enforcement and willful blindness to it as it was about the May 30 crash.

Assistant Federal Defender Jonathan Moffatt wrote in a sentencing memorandum that Diaz-Mourillo, a native Honduran, typifies the root causes of illegal immigration.

Born into poverty, denied a decent education and forced to help fend for his family in what was then a hurricane-ravaged country, Diaz-Mourillo broke the law a decade ago by sneaking into the United States "in search of a better life and better jobs," Moffatt wrote.

He eventually made his way to East Tennessee, where he found steady construction work alongside other illegal immigrants. Among his jobs was a construction project at the U.S. District Court building in Greeneville, Moffatt noted.

His employer not only turned a blind eye to the illegal status of his workers but was complicit in their crime, adopting a method of payment that minimized the risk of an incriminating paper trail, Moffatt's memorandum suggested.

"When Mr. Diaz-Mourillo would be paid, he would be given a card which could be taken to his employer's bank and money would be provided to him," Moffatt said. "He certainly was not the only illegal alien working on these jobs, and his impression was that this was known by the employers."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed Schmutzer pointed out that Diaz-Mourillo twice ran afoul of the law and even served jail time. But his illegal status was either ignored or undetected.

His first brush with East Tennessee law enforcement came in February 2004 when he was convicted in Washington County of charges including driving under the influence, assaulting a police officer and weapons possession.

His second conviction for DUI came in Knox County just 10 days before the head-on crash on the national park roadway. Diaz-Mourillo fled after the crash, so authorities could not prove whether he had been drinking. National Park Service Agent Jeff Carlisle was credited by Schmutzer with tracking down Diaz-Mourillo despite his use of false identification.

Moffatt, who said his client insists he was sober at the time of the crash, urged Senior U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan at Tuesday's hearing to give Diaz-Mourillo the lowest sentence possible. He cited a pending deportation that will separate him from his wife and two children, all three of whom are legal citizens.

"My meetings with Mr. Diaz have shown me he is very sorry for this accident. He did not want this accident to occur," Moffatt said.

Schmutzer urged Jordan to be tough.

"He was going the wrong way and hit these people," Schmutzer said. "He took off on foot. We were never able to determine if he had been drinking. We had a hard time finding him."

Diaz-Mourillo, via an interpreter, repeatedly asked for forgiveness from victims John Richard Clevelle and Mildred Margaret Lillard. But he also painted himself a bit of a victim.

"I've worked hard," he told Jordan. "It isn't fair what has happened to me or the people in the accident or my family. … There are people who do deserve to be in jail because they knew beforehand they are doing something wrong. … I've worked so hard for nothing."

Jordan was unswayed.

"Mr. Diaz has been convicted twice in Tennessee of driving while intoxicated," Jordan said, deeming it likely Diaz-Mourillo also was intoxicated in the head-on collision. "(The victims) suffered serious injury, and they will continue to suffer. … He chose to remain in this country illegally."

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