U.S. charges driver in human smuggling
Tenth migrant in hellish big rig dies
SAN ANTONIO — A truck driver faces the possibility of the death penalty or life in prison under a federal criminal complaint filed against him Monday in the deaths of 10 people who were in the country illegally who were being smuggled in a stifling tractor-trailer found in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
In outlining their immigrant-smuggling case against James Matthew Bradley Jr., federal prosecutors depicted the trailer as pitch-black, crammed with 90 people or more by some estimates, and so suffocatingly hot that one passenger said they took turns breathing through a hole and pounding on the walls to get the driver’s attention.
Bradley, 60, was charged under a federal law against knowingly transporting people who are in the country illegally — a law that provides for an unlimited prison term or capital punishment if the crime results in a death. He made a brief initial appearance in U.S. District Court on Monday, answering, “Yes, I do,” when Judge Betsy Chestney asked if he understood the maximum penalties he faced.
Three federal marshals escorted Bradley, who was handcuffed, to and from the courtroom. Wearing a dark-blue jail uniform, he appeared composed, giving brief, direct answers to the judge’s questions.
When the truck was found early Sunday morning outside a Wal-Mart store packed with people in the country illegally, law enforcement officials said eight of them had already died from heat exposure or asphyxiation. The death toll rose to nine on Sunday afternoon, and to 10 on Monday morning.
Twenty-nine other people found in the truck were hospitalized, some of them in critical condition. In addition, officials said, Bradley told investigators that when he first opened the truck, 30 to 40 other people who had been trapped inside fled.
Survivors who were interviewed by investigators said they were loaded into the truck from various locations in or near Laredo, Texas, and their estimates of the number of people inside at various times ranged from 70 to as many as 180 to 200.
“To maximize their criminal profits, these human smugglers crammed more than 100 people into a tractor-trailer in the stifling Texas summer heat resulting in 10 dead and 29 others hospitalized,” Thomas Homan, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement. “Human smugglers have repeatedly demonstrated that they have absolutely no regard for human life.”
In a statement included in the complaint, James Lara, a Homeland Security Department agent, said that Bradley, who does not own the truck, waived his right to remain silent and spoke to investigators. He told them that he “was unaware of the contents and/or cargo” and had been hired to deliver the truck to a new owner.
After parking outside the Wal-Mart, “he heard banging and shaking in the trailer,” Lara said. “Bradley said he went to open the doors and was surprised when he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people and knocked to the ground. Bradley said he then noticed bodies just lying on the floor like meat.”
“Bradley said he knew the trailer refrigeration system didn’t work and that the four vent holes were probably clogged up,” he added.
Authorities learned of the situation when a Wal-Mart employee called the San Antonio police about midnight Sunday to report “multiple people in need of assistance” and a suspicious truck in the parking lot, Lara said.
The truck was registered to Pyle Transportation Inc. of Schaller, Iowa. Company President Brian Pyle said that he had sold the truck to a man in Mexico, and that Bradley was an independent contractor who was supposed to deliver it to a pickup point in Brownsville.
“I’m absolutely sorry it happened. I really am. It’s shocking. I’m sorry my name was on it,” Pyle said, referring to the truck. He said he had no idea why Bradley took the looping route he described to investigators.
Bradley told authorities that he had stopped in Laredo — which would have been out of his way if he were traveling directly to Brownsville — to get the truck washed and detailed before heading back 150 miles north to San Antonio. From there, he would have had to drive 275 miles south again to get to Brownsville.
“I just can’t believe it. I’m stunned, shocked. He is too good a person to do anything like this,” said Bradley’s fiancee, Darnisha Rose of Louisville, Ky. “He helps people, he doesn’t hurt people.”
She said Bradley told her he had no idea how the immigrants got into his trailer.
One of the passengers told investigators that he was in a group of 24 people who had been in a “stash house” in Laredo for 11 days before being taken to the tractor-trailer.
Chestney scheduled a preliminary hearing for Thursday to decide whether the government had probable cause to proceed with the case and whether Bradley should be granted bail.
Information for this article was contributed by David Montgomery, Richard Perez-Pena, Manny Fernandez, Les Neuhaus and Susan Beachy of The New York
Times; and Nomaan Merchant, Claire Galofaro, Ryan Foley, Scott McFetridge, Mike Graczyk, Elliot Spagat, Peter Orsi and Frank Bajak of The Associated Press.
James Mathew Bradley Jr. (center), 60, of Clearwater, Fla., is escorted out of the federal courthouse after a hearing Monday in San Antonio.