A San Antonio police officer removes crime scene tape from near the area where eight people were found dead in a tractor-trailer loaded with multiple others, outside a Walmart store in stifling summer heat in what police are calling a horrific human trafficking case, Sunday, July 23, 2017, in San Antonio. (Photo: AP Photo/Eric Gay)
It began on July 22 with a desperate request for water and a Walmart employee’s suspicions about a tractor-trailer parked outside. That led officials on Sunday to discover at least 39 people packed into a sweltering trailer, several of them on the verge of death — their skin hot to the touch, their hearts dangerously racing — and eight men already dead. Two others died later at a hospital, bringing the death toll to ten.
Authorities think they found an immigrant smuggling operation just 2½ hours from the Mexican border that ended in what San Antonio Police Chief William McManus described as a “horrific tragedy.”
The 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, including extreme dehydration and heat strokes. 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. 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.
Many of the immigrants had hired smugglers who brought them across the U.S. border, hid them in safe houses and then put them aboard the tractor-trailer for the ride northward, according to accounts given to investigators.
One passenger described a perilous journey that began in Mexico, telling investigators he and others crossed into the U.S. by raft, paying smugglers 12,500 Mexican pesos (about $700), an amount that also bought protection offered by Los Zetas drug cartel.
They then walked until the next day and rode in a pickup truck to Laredo, where they were put aboard the tractor-trailer to be taken to San Antonio, according to the complaint. The passenger said he was supposed to pay the smugglers $5,500 once he got there.
Another passenger, Adan Lara Vega, told authorities that he was in a group of 24 people who had been in a “stash house” in Laredo for 11 days before being taken to the tractor-trailer. The smugglers who hid him and six friends in a safe house in Laredo said that they would be riding in an air-conditioned space.
The Mexican laborer from the state of Aguascalientes said that when they boarded the truck on a Laredo street Saturday night for the two-hour trip to San Antonio, it was already full of people but so dark he couldn’t tell how many. He said he was never offered water and never saw the driver. Lara Vega said that when people are being smuggled, they are told not to look at the faces of their handlers — and it’s a good idea to obey.
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.
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.
James Mathew Bradley Jr., left, arrives at the federal courthouse for a hearing, Monday, July 24, 2017, in San Antonio. Bradley was arrested in connection with the deaths of multiple people packed into a broiling tractor-trailer. (Photo: AP Photo/Eric Gay)
The truck’s driver, identified as James M. Bradley, Jr., 60, of Clearwater, Fla., has been charged under a federal law against knowingly transporting people who are in the country illegally — a law that provides for an unlimited prison term or capital punishment, if the crime results in a death. Bradley did not enter a plea or say anything about what happened when he appeared in court on Thursday, July 20. But in court papers, he told authorities he didn’t realize anyone was inside his 18-wheeler until he parked and got out to relieve himself.
Bradley told investigators that the trailer had been sold and he was transporting it for his boss from Iowa to Brownsville, Texas. After hearing banging and shaking, he opened the door and was “surprised when he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people and knocked to the ground,” according to the criminal complaint.
He told authorities that he had stopped in Laredo — which would have been out of his way if he were traveling directly to Brownsville — to get the truck washed and detailed before heading back 150 miles (240 kilometers) north to San Antonio. From there, he would have had to drive 275 miles south again to get to Brownsville.
Although Bradley told authorities that nobody met the tractor-trailer when he arrived in San Antonio, one passenger said six black SUVs were waiting to pick up the immigrants and were full in a matter of minutes. And San Antonio police said store surveillance video showed vehicles picking up some of the immigrants.
Bradley admitted he did not call 911, even though he knew at least one passenger was dead. He told authorities that he knew the trailer refrigeration system didn’t work and that the four ventilation holes were probably clogged.
The truck was registered to Pyle Transportation Inc. of Schaller, Iowa. President Brian Pyle said that he had sold the truck to someone in Mexico and that Bradley was supposed to deliver it to a pick-up point in Brownsville. Pyle showed a reporter a copy of what he said was a bill of sale, dated May 10, which contained no sales price. Pyle declined to identify the purchaser or say where in Brownsville the trailer was to be delivered. The county treasurer’s office declined to say whether paperwork transferring the truck’s title had been filed.
“I’m absolutely sorry it happened. I really am. It’s shocking. I’m sorry my name was on it,” Pyle said, referring to the truck. He said he had no idea why Bradley took the roundabout route he described to investigators. “I just can’t believe it. I’m stunned, shocked. He is too good a person to do anything like this,” said Bradley’s fiancee, Darnisha Rose of Louisville, Kentucky. “He helps people, he doesn’t hurt people.”
James M. Bradley, Jr., who is being held without bail, appeared in court for another hearing on Monday, July 24. His defense lawyer, Alfredo Villarreal, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The bodies of the 10 dead, all adult men, have been taken to the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office, which is working with other agencies to determine their identities, a spokeswoman said. Officials with the Mexican Consulate are also assisting. The men’s bodies will be returned to their families once their identities are established, a process involving fingerprint and DNA checks and other forensic tools that could take considerable time.
A vigil was held Sunday night by groups that support immigrants in San Antonio. 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.”
It quickly became a political issue in Texas. The Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, who has long denounced illegal immigration, took to social media to link the case to the state’s new and highly controversial law banning so-called sanctuary cities — those that do not cooperate with immigration agencies.
“Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law,” Mr. Patrick wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday. “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.”
State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, a Democrat, said the comments went “too far.” Mr. Rodriguez said in a statement that when “10 people from any background perish under such horrific circumstances, it is an occasion deserving of solemnity and respect, not self-indulgent cheerleading.”
Advocates for immigrants in Texas are still reeling from the recent passage of the tough new immigration law, set to take effect September 1. The deaths marked yet another blow.
“It’s death by policy, and the government is complicit.”
— Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center
The grisly discovery in San Antonio 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.
Lara Vega said he was deported from the U.S. three years ago but decided to take another chance because the economy is depressed where he lives with his wife, 4-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
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 driver, Tyrone Williams, was sentenced to life in prison without parole, but in 2010, a federal appellate court overturned his 19 life sentences. He was resentenced to 34 years in prison.
✻ 9 People Dead After At Least 39 Were Found Packed in a Sweltering Tractor-Trailer in San Antonio -By Eva Ruth Moravec, Todd C. Frankel and Avi Selk | Washington Post
✻ Immigrants Wept, Pleaded for Water and Pounded on the Truck -By Frank Bajak and Nomaan Merchant | AP
✻ ‘Ruthless Human Smugglers’ Blamed for Deaths of 9 People Left in a Truck in 100-Degree Texas Heat -By Jenny Jarvie | Los Angeles Times
✻ In San Antonio Smuggling Case, a Fatal Journey in a Packed and Sweltering Truck -By Manny Fernandez and Richard Pérez-Peña | The New York Times
✻ Driver in Human Smuggling Operation Charged, Could Face Death Penalty -By Matthew Vann and Elizabeth Chuck | NBC News
✻ Iowa Firm Tied to Truck Deaths Has History of Legal Problems -By Ryan J. Foley and Scott McFetridge | ABC News
✻ A Path to America, Marked by More and More Death | The New York Times