United States

Truck Driver Charged With Human Trafficking; 10th Passenger Dies

More than 100 people may have been inside the trailer before it stopped in San Antonio, witnesses say

What to Know

  • Ten dead after being trafficked to San Antonio in the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer; dozens remain hospitalized.
  • The driver of the truck is in custody and charged with transporting immigrants in the U.S. illegally. He could face the death penalty.
  • Some survivors seen leaving in cars with friends or family, at least one person was found after wandering into nearby woods.

The driver of a broiling tractor-trailer found packed with immigrants outside a San Antonio Walmart early Sunday could face the death penalty after being charged Monday with transporting illegal aliens, resulting in the deaths of 10 of his passengers.

A federal complaint filed Monday accuses 60-year-old James Matthew Bradley of driving a trailer packed with immigrants for "commercial advantage or private financial gain."

A passenger in the trailer told federal investigators that he and others who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally were guided into the trailer to be taken north to San Antonio. The complaint said passengers appeared fine during the first hour of their journey, but people later began to struggle to breathe.

A second passenger in the trailer told the Associated Press that he remembers climbing into a pitch black metal tractor-trailer with no ventilation. Adan Lara Vega, 27, also recalls hearing crying and people asking for water. He said he was sweating and then lost consciousness and woke up in the hospital. 

The pitch-black truck, crammed with as many as 90 people, was so suffocatingly hot that one passenger said they took turns breathing through a hole while others began pounding on the walls to get the driver's attention.

The driver of a tractor-trailer found parked outside a Texas Walmart with dozens of people inside its trailer is due in court Monday.

Bradley told investigators that he was unaware that there were people inside until he parked and got out to urinate. He allegedly said that he opened the door after hearing banging and shaking and was "surprised when he was run over by 'Spanish' people and knocked to the ground."

The complaint said Bradley did not call 911, even though he realized that several people already were dead.

Bradley said the truck had recently been sold and that he was transporting it from Iowa to Brownsville.

Brian Pyle, of Pyle Transportation Inc., of Schaller, Iowa, told the Associated Press Monday that they sold the truck to a man in Mexico in May. He said an independent contractor, Bradley, was supposed to deliver the vehicle to a pick-up point in Brownsville over the weekend. Pyle said he had no idea of any problems with the truck until media started to call Sunday following reports of the deaths in San Antonio.

Bradley, who has been arrested, could face the death penalty if convicted.

Authorities fear the death toll could rise because many of those rescued from the sweltering truck in San Antonio have been hospitalized with extreme dehydration and heatstroke.

10th Victim Dies After Being Trapped in Broiling Trailer

Authorities announced Monday that the 10th victim had died at the hospital in connection with the incident. Eight were found dead inside the truck when officers arrived early Sunday morning. Of those who survived, some escaped or left with friends and family, but 38 others required hospitalization -- as many as 20 of those were in dire condition, many with extreme dehydration and heatstroke, officials said Sunday.

"We're looking at a human-trafficking crime," said San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, calling it "a horrific tragedy."

Authorities were called to the San Antonio parking lot late Saturday or early Sunday and found eight people dead inside the truck. Two more victims died at hospitals, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

Sunday's human smuggling deaths in San Antonio call attention to a problem, one Dallas trucker said has been going on for years. He tells NBC 5 it's a problem that's difficult to stop.

The tragedy came to light after a person from the truck approached a Walmart employee and asked for water late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, said McManus. The employee gave the person water and then 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.

San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Wood said the victims, "were very hot to the touch. So these people were in this trailer without any signs of any type of water."

Authorities said the truck had no working air conditioning.

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.

Four of the survivors 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 then 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.

Mexican Consul General in San Antonio Reyna Torres said Mexican nationals were among the survivors and those who died on the rig.

The Mexican government also released a statement Sunday night expressing its condolences to the relatives of those who died and called for an "exhaustive investigation"

A Guatemalan official said two natives of Central American country were among those hospitalized. Consul Cristy Andrino in McAllen said the two told her they had crossed into the U.S. on foot and were later picked up by the rig. Guatemala was seeking to obtain witness status for the two survivors so they wouldn't be deported, Andrino said.

The U.S. Homeland Security Department stepped in to take the lead in the investigation. Department Secretary John Kelly said the deaths demonstrate the brutality of smuggling organizations that "have no regard for human life and seek only profits."

San Antonio is about a 150-mile drive from the Mexican border. The temperature in San Antonio reached 101 degrees on Saturday and the heat index was likely much higher. The temperature didn't dip below 90 degrees until after 10 p.m. Temperatures inside the truck could have reached as much as 140 degrees; Heat stroke can be fatal once a person's body temperature climbs above 107 degrees.

Vigil Held in San Antonio for Trafficking Victims

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

Immigrants' rights activists and church officials held up handmade signs reading "Who here is not an immigrant" and "No human is illegal."

Tough Immigration Laws Blamed for Deaths

Those gathered at a vigil Sunday held a moment of silence, then gave speeches blaming federal and Texas authorities' embrace of harsher immigration policies for contributing to the deaths.

Jonathan Ryan, executive director of a nonprofit called Raices, said it's "an unfortunate example" of what happens when such policies are enacted.

A new law approved by the Texas Legislature lets police inquire about peoples' immigration status during routine interactions such as traffic stops.

Bob Libal is executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based nonprofit that supports more liberal immigration policies.

"These tragedies are compounded when it's incredibly dangerous and incredibly expensive and we push migration into the hands of illicit actors," Libal told The AP in a phone interview. "Everyone's thoughts today should be not in politicizing it but in making sure that everyone who survived this ordeal is treated with respect and get the protection they need."

A group of immigration lawyers and advocates sued Homeland Security Secretary Kelly and other U.S. officials this month alleging that guards on the U.S. border with Mexico have illegally turned away asylum-seekers.

Trafficking Case a Common Occurrence

Sunday's tragedy was just the latest smuggling-by-truck operation to end with multiple deaths. 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.

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.

"These criminal organizations, they're all about making money. They have no regard for human life," Homan said.

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.

Authorities in Mexico have also made a number of similar discoveries over the years.

Last December, they found 110 migrants trapped and suffocating inside a truck after it crashed while speeding in the state of Veracruz. Most were from Central America, and 48 were minors. Some were injured in the crash.

Last October, also in Veracruz state, four migrants suffocated in a truck carrying 55 people.

Associated Press writers Mike Graczyk in Houston, Elliot Spagat in San Diego, Peter Orsi in Mexico City and Frank Bajak in Houston contributed to this report.

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