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Truck driver charged in Texas in suspected smuggling case that led to 10 deaths

Police officers work on a crime scene after eight people believed to be illegal immigrants being smuggled into the United States were found dead inside a sweltering 18-wheeler trailer parked behind a Walmart store in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. July 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ray Whitehouse

SAN ANTONIO - Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges Monday against a truck driver they say knowingly smuggled dozens of immigrants to San Antonio in the sweltering cargo bay of a tractor trailer, leading to 10 deaths.

James M. Bradley Jr., has been charged with transporting immigrants for "commercial advantage or private financial gain," according to the criminal complaint. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

The complaint offers the first account of a deadly journey that risked dozens of lives, and allegedly involved human smuggling networks and the Zetas criminal organization.

Prosecutors say Bradley drove a trailer filled with as many as 70 immigrants up I-35 as temperatures soared into the triple-digits. They say Bradley knew the trailer's refrigeration system did not work, and that he did not stop as the immigrants frantically banged on the trailer's walls and shouted for help. According to the prosecutors, some migrants lost consciousness, while others took turns breathing through a single hole in the trailer wall.

When he finally opened the door, several passengers were dead, lying on the floor "like meat," the complaint said.

Authorities suspect the victims were caught up in an immigrant smuggling operation.

Eight men found in the truck in a Walmart parking lot Sunday were dead. Two more died later.

The other victims, 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."

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-Texas, 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-Texas, called it "horrific news," writing on Twitter that "We must do everything we can to put an end to this modern day slavery."

City 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."

Even more people were thought to have been inside the trailer before help arrived, police said. 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.

The truck's driver, identified as Bradley, 60, of Clearwater, Florida, was arrested, said the U.S. attorney's office for the Western District of Texas.

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, Texas. 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-Texas, 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."

Maria Sacchetti, Lindsey Bever, Avi Selk, Todd C. Frankel / The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Eva Ruth Moravec contributed to this report from San Antonio.

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