Federal law enforcement officials have launched a multi-agency investigation into cases involving students from Saudi Arabia who vanished while facing criminal charges, possibly with the help of their government, according to Oregon’s senior U.S. senator and his staff.
Sen. Ron Wyden learned of the probe Wednesday during a meeting in his office with Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, an aide to the lawmaker told The Oregonian/OregonLive.
The pair spoke for roughly a half-hour about the disappearance of Saudi nationals from Oregon and elsewhere throughout the country while they faced trial or prosecution, the aide said.
McAleenan informed Wyden at the meeting that his agency and other departments within the Trump administration are now investigating how the students fled the U.S.
“I am confident that he is taking this issue seriously,” Wyden, a Democrat, said of McAleenan in a statement. “I urged him to proceed aggressively.”
A Customs and Border Protection spokesman declined to comment on the investigation. The State and Justice departments did not respond to requests for comment.
Wyden began asking questions about the Saudi students after an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive. The newsroom has found cases in at least eight different states where students have fled the U.S. after being charged with serious crimes, including manslaughter and sexual assault.
In Oregon, the suspects include two accused rapists, a pair of suspected hit-and-run drivers and one man accused of having a trove of child pornography on his computer. All five of the Oregon cases involved young men studying at a public college or university with assistance from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the time of their arrest.
In at least four of those cases, the Saudi government paid the defendant’s bail and legal fees. Three surrendered their passports. Federal law enforcement officials confirmed at least two returned to Saudi Arabia.
The Oregonian/OregonLive is now tracking these cases around the country and will be sharing its findings in real time. [View our interactive map above]
Wyden’s meeting with McAleenan comes a month after the senator asked the Customs and Border chief to begin investigating the disappearances in Oregon.
Wyden, who sits on the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, has also formally sought answers from the State and Justice departments as well as the FBI about the Saudi fugitives. He has not received a response from any of the three.
Last week, fellow Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who sits on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, met with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan to discuss the missing Saudi students, his office said.
“Senator Merkley is raising this issue at the highest levels of government,” Sara Hottman, a spokeswoman, told The Oregonian/OregonLive.
He and Wyden singled out Saudi Arabia last month in a pair of bills targeting foreign consulates that help their citizens escape criminal prosecution in the U.S.
The proposed legislation, which explicitly cites the Persian Gulf kingdom and two of the Saudi nationals who vanished in Oregon, would require the federal government to investigate such disappearances, prevent them from happening again and punish the Saudi government for its suspected role.