SAN ANTONIO — A truck driver accused of smuggling dozens of immigrants across the U.S. border was charged Monday in what appears to be an organized operation that a passenger said had connections to a notorious Mexican gang.
Ten passengers died as a result of being trapped in the sweltering cargo bay of a tractor-trailer, where survivors said some had trouble breathing and passed out from the heat.
A criminal complaint stated that James M. Bradley Jr., 60, who has been charged with illegally smuggling foreigners for “commercial advantage or private financial gain,” drove a trailer filled with more than 100 immigrants up I-35 into San Antonio as temperatures soared into the triple-digits. Prosecutors said Bradley knew the trailer’s refrigeration system did not work, and did not stop as the immigrants frantically banged on the trailer’s walls and shouted for help.
Bradley told authorities that when he opened the door over the weekend in a parking lot, a number of passengers were lying on the floor “like meat,” according to the complaint.
“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 ten dead and 29 others hospitalized,” Acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan said in a statement. “Human smugglers have repeatedly demonstrated that they have absolutely no regard for human life.”
Bradley appeared in court Monday and was ordered held until a bond hearing set for July 27. He was told he could face the death penalty and would therefore be assigned two attorneys, at least one of whom would be a federal public defender.
Court documents detail the deadly journey that allegedly involved human smuggling networks and the Zetas criminal organization.
After midnight Sunday, San Antonio police responded to a call about a suspicious tractor-trailer in a Walmart parking lot and saw numerous people near the truck, according to the criminal complaint.
Eight men were dead. Two others died later at a hospital, authorities said.
The others, as young as 15, appeared to have been loaded like cargo into a trailer without working air conditioning during the height of the Texas summer. It was unknown how long they had been in the trailer or where their journey started, but 30 of the victims were taken to area hospitals and 17 had life-threatening injuries. Federal authorities said the victims were “undocumented aliens.”
One of the immigrants, from Aguascalientes, Mexico, told authorities that smugglers told him there was a price for protection from people linked to the Zetas drug cartel as well as a cost for crossing the river into the United States, according to the court documents. Once he arrived in San Antonio, he said he was also expected to pay smugglers $5,500.
He told authorities he and his group were later taken into the tractor-trailer and loaded inside. He said each group was given different color tape so smugglers could identify them upon arrival.
“The smugglers closed the door and the interior of the trailer was pitch black and it was already hot inside,” according to the criminal complaint. The court documents allege that he and the other passengers were given no food or water during the trip and, when passengers started passing out, others started taking turns breathing through a hole in the truck and beating on the trailer walls, but the driver kept going.
When they arrived, “the driver braked hard and people inside the trailer fell over because they were so weak,” according to the complaint.
The court documents allege that six black SUVs took some people away.
Bradley told authorities he did not know what he was hauling but when he stopped at Walmart, he heard “banging and shaking” in the trailer, according to the complaint.
When he opened the doors, he said, he was “surprised when he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people and knocked to the ground,” according to the complaint. He said that several dozen people ran from the trailer and through the parking lot. He told authorities he knew that at least one person was dead.
Bradley did not call 911, he said.
San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said some of the victims appeared to have suffered severe heatstroke, with heart rates soaring over 130 beats per minute. In the worst cases, Hood said, “a lot of them are going to have some irreversible brain damage.”
Survivors at six area hospitals told investigators that up to 100 individuals were originally in the tractor-trailer.
Walmart surveillance video showed cars stopping and picking up people as they exited the back of the trailer. But suspicions were not raised until an employee noticed a disoriented person, who asked for water. The employee then called police, authorities said. Then, a chaotic scene unfolded outside the Walmart on the city’s southwest side, as ambulances and police cars arrived and people were carried away, leaving behind shoes and personal belongings strewn across the asphalt and trailer floor.
Reyna Torres, consul of Mexico, confirmed in Spanish that Mexican nationals are among those dead and in the hospitals and said the consulate is interviewing the survivors.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) called the incident a “tragedy” Sunday and said such situations are why he helped passed a bill to ban sanctuary cities.
“Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law,” he wrote on social media. “Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform so we can control who enters our country. We continue to pray for the families and friends of the victims.”
Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said Sunday that the smugglers had “no regard for human life and seek only profits.”
“The Department of Homeland Security and its partners in the U.S., Mexico and Central America will continue to root out these smugglers, bring them to justice and dismantle their networks,” he said in a statement.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) said in a statement it was a “human smuggling attempt” that had turned into a “horrific tragedy.”
“Prosecute smugglers, pray for survivors and the victims’ families, stop the hysteria, reform our broken immigration system,” he said.
On Monday, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) called it “horrific news,” writing on Twitter that “We must do everything we can to put an end to this modern day slavery.”
The grisly discovery in San Antonio comes as the Trump administration is calling on Congress to increase funding for border security and to expand the wall on the southern border with Mexico.
It also illuminates the extreme risks immigrants face as they attempt to elude border agents in the searing summer heat. Some try to slip through legal checkpoints undetected, while others sneak illegally across the border. Often, they are fleeing violence and poverty in Latin America, advocates say.
Many have died attempting to enter the United States, drowning in the Rio Grande, lost in the desolate ranch lands of south Texas, or collapsing from exhaustion in the Arizona desert.
Two weeks ago, Houston police discovered 12 immigrants, including a girl, who had been locked for hours inside a sweltering box truck in a parking lot, banging for someone to rescue them. Three people were arrested. A Harris County prosecutor said the migrants were at imminent risk of death.
In May, border agents discovered 18 immigrants locked in a refrigerated produce truck, with the temperature set at 51 degrees. Passengers were from Latin America and Kosovo.
One of the deadliest smuggling operations occurred in 2003, when 19 people died after being discovered in an insulated trailer abandoned at a truck stop in Victoria, Tex. The truck driver in that case, Tyrone M. Williams, was sentenced to nearly 34 years in prison.
In San Antonio, the driver was working with Pyle Transportation, a hauling firm in Schaller, Iowa. The company’s name was emblazoned on the truck. Owner Brian Pyle said Bradley, the truck driver, operated largely independently from his company.
“This was his very first trip,” Pyle said. “It’s a common thing in the trucking industry … He had my name on the side, and I pay for his insurance. He makes his own decisions, buys his own fuel.”
Pyle declined to name the driver, who he said was from Louisville, and said he did not know what the man was transporting.
A woman at a Louisville address listed for Bradley declined to comment.
The tractor-trailer was found outside the Walmart about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, police said. The store, which was closed at the time, is surrounded by a heavily wooded area. Police feared that some people had fled the trailer when emergency workers arrived. A search using a police dog and a helicopter found one more victim, who was taken to a hospital.
In the morning, Margarita Balderas, 64, stopped by the Walmart on her way home from Sunday Mass. She had seen the news but was shocked to realize that the tragedy had occurred at that store.
“It makes me feel so bad. Why are they treated like that?” she said of the migrants. “They’re just trying to make a living.”
A vigil was held Sunday night by groups that support immigrants in San Antonio.
“We’ll be praying for the survivors, praying that they are able to recover and be okay,” said Amy Fischer, policy director for RAICES, a nonprofit group that provides legal services for immigrants in central Texas.
Fischer expressed concern that upon finding the victims in the trailer, San Antonio police called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities. Police spokesman Sgt. Jesse Salame said that is standard practice for cases of international smuggling.
“We didn’t call ICE to get everybody deported. We called them because they are the investigating authority,” Salame said.
What will happen to the survivors once they are released from the hospital has not been decided.
But authorities indicated that their journey was not over.
Salame said he expects the victims to be released into ICE custody.
“They have to be turned over to the custody of somebody,” he said. “They don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Later Sunday, moments after Mass ended at the historic San Fernando Cathedral, two dozen people held a gathering in Main Plaza to show their support for immigrants. A handful of people made speeches and said prayers in Spanish and English, using a megaphone, to a crowd of about 50 people. Children played in the splash pads nearby while adults wandered in and out of the crowd, many taking photographs and videos.
“Hold your family extra tight tonight,” said Barbie Hurtado, the statewide organizer for RAICES, which organized the event, “and keep the people that lost their lives in your thoughts, in your prayers.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), a San Antonio native, addressed attendees at the end of the hour-long service.
“This represents a symptom of a broken immigration system that Congress, of which I am a part, has had the chance to fix but has not,” he said. “That’s a colossal failure that has a human cost.”
Another San Antonio native, Debbie Leal-Herrera, 55, said she was in town visiting from New Mexico this week and wanted to come to the plaza because “it touches me as a Hispanic.”
Leal-Herrera, an elementary school teacher, said she knows several people who have immigrated to the United States illegally and has taught many students whose parents are undocumented.
“It reminds me of how much we truly take for granted,” she said. “What a beautiful gift it is to be an American.”
Advocates for immigrants in Texas are still reeling from the recent passage of the tough new immigration law, set to take effect Sept. 1. The deaths marked yet another blow.
Maria Victoria de la Cruz, who is originally from Mexico, publicly urged federal officials not to deport the immigrants who were found Sunday.
“As an immigrant, I feel destroyed,” she told the group in Spanish. “It’s not fair to return them to the place they have fled.”
During the vigil, a somber group quietly approached the consul from Mexico to ask about a relative. Juan Jose Castillo, who said he is from the Mexican state of Zacatecas but lives in the United States, said he was relieved that his 44-year-old brother was among the survivors.
“He came out of necessity,” Castillo said in Spanish. “It’s very bad.”
Eva Ruth Moravec contributed to this report from San Antonio.