The driver of a semitrailer packed with at least 39 immigrants, 10 of whom died, pleaded guilty Monday to making the deadly smuggling run.
James Matthew Bradley Jr., 61, pleaded Monday in federal court in San Antonio to one conspiracy count and a count of transporting the immigrants resulting in death. He faces up to life imprisonment when he’s sentenced on Jan. 22.
The Clearwater, Florida, man could have faced the death penalty had he gone to trial.
James Matthew Bradley Jr., left, arrived at the federal courthouse for a hearing in San Antonio. Bradley, the driver of a semitrailer packed with almost three dozen immigrants, pleaded guilty on Monday
Police officers at the scene after 39 immigrants were discovered in this truck at a Walmart in Texas in the July heat. Ten of those being trafficked died
Authorities say at least 39 immigrants, most of them Mexicans, were packed into the sweltering trailer found by San Antonio police last July in a Walmart parking lot, although court records show that surviving immigrants estimated that between 70 and 180 to 200 people were carried in the trailer during the transport.
The truck’s refrigeration system wasn’t working, and investigators say passengers had difficulty breathing as temperatures climbed.
Temperatures in San Antonio topped at 101 degrees that day.
A co-defendant, Pedro Silva Segura, 47, still faces two conspiracy counts, including one of conspiracy to transport and harbor undocumented immigrants for financial gain resulting in death.
The Laredo, Texas, man also is charged with two counts of transporting undocumented immigrants resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy.
He remains in custody in Laredo without bond awaiting transfer to San Antonio. No trial date has been set.
Officers laying police tape at the scene of the deadly human trafficking incident in July
One of the men that were inside the truck said people inside the hot trailer were crying and begging for water
‘Today’s admission of guilt by Mr. Bradley helps to close the door on one of the conspirators responsible for causing the tragic loss of life and wreaking havoc on those who survived this horrific incident,’ said Shane Folden, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.
Bradley initially had denied knowing anyone was inside the trailer, telling investigators that the trailer had been sold and he was transporting it for his boss from Iowa to Brownsville, Texas.
But he said he had driven to Laredo, Texas, and stopped twice there before driving back to San Antonio, in the opposite direction from Brownsville.
Thomas Homan, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said he was saddened to hear these kind of tragedies still occurred after the last big human trafficking incident in 2003 when a truck was found 120 miles southeast of San Antonio with 19 dead migrants.
‘It is sad that 14 years later people are still being smuggled in tractor-trailers,’ he said. ‘There still isn’t water, there still isn’t ventilation. These criminal organizations, they’re all about making money.’
Big rigs emerged as a popular smuggling method in the early 1990s amid a surge in U.S. border enforcement in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, which were then the busiest corridors for illegal crossings.
Before that, people paid small fees to mom-and-pop operators to get them across a largely unguarded border. As crossing became exponentially more difficult after the 2001 terror strikes in the U.S., migrants were led through more dangerous terrain and paid thousands of dollars more.
Women, some carrying children, think they are less likely to be raped on a truck than in the open desert because there are more witnesses, Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political scientist who teaches at University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, said. Riding in a big rig, she said, is ‘the VIP treatment.’
The people inside the tractor-trailer were found in the early hours in July after one of them approached a Walmart worker in the store parking lot and asked for some water.
The employee gave the person the water and then called police, and when officers arrived they found the ten people dead in the back of the trailer, police Chief William McManus said.
Investigators checked store surveillance video, which showed vehicles had arrived and picked up other people from the tractor-trailer, police said.
McManus called the case ‘a horrific tragedy’.
A criminal complaint found a degree of sophistication and organizational muscle: passengers had color-coded tape to split into smaller groups; and six black SUVs awaited them at one transit point to bring them to their destinations.
ICE released a statement saying the deaths are a ‘stark reminder of why human smuggling networks must be pursued, caught and punished’.
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