Im­mi­grant smug­gling leaves nine dead in Texas

Of­fi­cial: 17 have life-threat­en­ing in­juries

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Eric Gay and Will Weissert

SAN AN­TO­NIO» At least nine peo­ple died af­ter be­ing crammed into a swel­ter­ing trac­tor-trailer found parked out­side a Wal­mart in the mid­sum­mer Texas heat, vic­tims of what au­thor­i­ties said Sun­day was an im­mi­grant-smug­gling at­tempt gone wrong.

The driver was ar­rested, and nearly 20 oth­ers res­cued from the rig were hos­pi­tal­ized in dire con­di­tion, many with ex­treme de­hy­dra­tion and heat­stroke, of­fi­cials said.

“We’re look­ing at a hu­mantraf­fick­ing crime,” said Po­lice Chief William McManus, call­ing it “a hor­rific tragedy.”

One U.S. of­fi­cial said 17 of those res­cued were be­ing treated for in­juries that were con­sid­ered life-threat­en­ing.

Au­thor­i­ties were called to the San An­to­nio park­ing lot late Satur­day or early Sun­day and found eight peo­ple dead in­side the truck. A ninth vic­tim died at the hospi­tal, said Liz John­son, spokes­woman for U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment.

The vic­tims “were very hot to the touch. So these peo­ple were in this trailer with­out any signs of any type of wa­ter,” Fire Chief Charles Hood said.

Au­thor­i­ties would not say whether the trailer was locked when they ar­rived, but they said it had no work­ing air con­di­tion­ing.

It was just the lat­est smug­gling-by-truck op­er­a­tion to end in tragedy. In one of the worst cases on record in the U.S., 19 im­mi­grants locked in­side a sti­fling rig died in Vic­to­ria, Texas, in 2003.

Based on ini­tial in­ter­views with sur­vivors of the San An­to­nio tragedy, more than 100 peo­ple may have been packed into the back of the 18-wheeler at one point in its jour­ney, ICE act­ing Direc­tor Thomas Ho­man said. Of­fi­cials said 39 peo­ple were in­side when res­cuers ar­rived, and the rest were be­lieved to have es­caped or hitched rides to their next des­ti­na­tion.

Some of the sur­vivors told au­thor­i­ties they were from Mex­ico, and four ap­peared to be be­tween 10 and 17 years old, Ho­man said. In­ves­ti­ga­tors gave no de­tails on where the rig be­gan its jour­ney or where it was headed.

But Ho­man said it was un­likely the truck was used to carry the im­mi­grants across the bor­der into the United States. He said peo­ple from Latin Amer­ica who rely on smug­gling net­works typ­i­cally cross the bor­der on foot and are picked up by a driver.

“Even though they have the driver in cus­tody, I can guar­an­tee you there’s go­ing to be many more peo­ple we’re look­ing for to pros­e­cute,” Ho­man said.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors said James Mathew Bradley Jr., 60, of Clear­wa­ter, Fla., was taken into cus­tody and would be charged Mon­day. The lo­cal U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice wouldn’t say whether Bradley was the al­leged driver of the truck who was ar­rested.

The U.S. Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment stepped in to take the lead in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion from San An­to­nio po­lice. Depart­ment Sec­re­tary John Kelly said the in­ci­dent demon­strates the bru­tal­ity of smug­gling or­ga­ni­za­tions that “have no re­gard for hu­man life and seek only prof­its.”

The truck had an Iowa li­cense plate and was reg­is­tered to Pyle Trans­porta- tion Inc. of Schaller, Iowa. A com­pany of­fi­cial did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a phone mes­sage seek­ing com­ment.

San An­to­nio is about a 150-mile drive from the Mex­i­can bor­der. The tem­per­a­ture in San An­to­nio reached 101 de­grees Satur­day and didn’t dip be­low 90 de­grees un­til af­ter 10 p.m.

The tragedy came to light af­ter a per­son from the truck ap­proached a Wal­mart em­ployee in the park­ing lot and asked for wa­ter late Satur­day night or early Sun­day morn­ing, said McManus, the lo­cal po­lice chief.

The em­ployee gave the per­son wa­ter and called po­lice, who found the dead and the des­per­ate in­side the rig. Some of those in the truck ran into the woods, McManus said.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors checked store sur­veil­lance video, which showed ve­hi­cles ar­riv­ing and pick­ing up peo­ple from the truck, au­thor­i­ties said. Wal­mart re­leased a brief state­ment Sun­day say­ing it was do­ing what it could to help in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

On Sun­day evening, about 100 peo­ple gath­ered at a San An­to­nio church for a vigil to mourn those killed.

In the May 2003 case, the im­mi­grants were be­ing taken from South Texas to Hous­ton. Pros­e­cu­tors said the driver heard them beg­ging and scream­ing for their lives but re­fused to free them. The driver was sen­tenced to nearly 34 years in prison.

“It’s sad that 14 years later peo­ple are still be­ing smug­gled in trac­tor-trail­ers, there still isn’t wa­ter, there still isn’t ven­ti­la­tion,” Ho­man said. “These crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions, they’re all about mak­ing money. They have no re­gard for hu­man life.”

The Bor­der Pa­trol has re­ported at least four truck seizures this month in and around Laredo, Texas. On July 7, agents found 72 peo­ple crammed into a truck with no means of es­cape, the agency said.

They were from Mex­ico, Ecuador, Gu­atemala and El Sal­vador.

Eric Gay, The As­so­ci­ated Press

El­dia Con­tr­eras wipes away a tear Sun­day as she takes part in a vigil at a cathe­dral in San An­to­nio.

Eric Gay, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Young girls take part in a vigil for the vic­tims Sun­day evening in San An­to­nio.

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