18 human cargo deaths in Texas
Truck owner arrested
From Terry Frieden
VICTORIA, Texas (CNN) -- Eighteen suspected illegal immigrants, including an infant, suffocated Wednesday after they rode in the back of a semi-trailer with dozens others from Mexico to south Texas, federal officials said.
Federal authorities leading the investigation believe the migrants were locked inside the truck. All the deaths were due to asphyxiation, dehydration or heat-related conditions, officials said.
Tyrone Williams of Schenectady, New York, to whom the truck was registered, was arrested Wednesday morning in Bel Air, Texas, said Michael Shelby, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas. No charges had been filed as of Wednesday afternoon.
Williams is a legal permanent U.S. resident from Jamaica, the prosecutor said.
Authorities were seeking two other individuals, a Hispanic female with a dark complexion and white male "who perhaps speaks Spanish," the prosecutor said. He did not detail their involvement.
Federal authorities had no immediate information on what charges may be filed, but one official stressed that under a 1996 law a defendant charged with migrant smuggling that results in a death could be subject to the death penalty.
Bob Wallis, regional director for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, called it a "heinous, heinous crime."
The scope of the tragedy became clear after officers from the Victoria County Sheriff's office responded to a 911 call reporting a disturbance outside a convenience store shortly after 2 a.m. Wednesday. They found the trailer parked nearby.
"When the deputies opened the door, they didn't expect that there was gonna be people inside," Shelby said, "and when they opened this door they were flooded by human beings that were pouring out of there."
Thirteen bodies were found inside the trailer and another four were found on the ground nearby, Victoria County Sheriff Michael Ratcliff said.
Another person died after arriving at Citizens Medical Center in full cardiac arrest, a hospital spokeswoman said.
As many as 100 people or more fled the back of the truck, he said, as sheriff's deputies tried to administer first aid to those left behind. By Wednesday afternoon, 32 of the people, including eight juveniles, were in federal custody, Shelby said. As many as 80 remained at large.
Asa Hutchinson, Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security, called it "the greatest loss of life in recent history in what appears to be an alien smuggling case." Hutchinson has given the investigation "the highest priority," he said.
"This grim discovery is a horrific reminder of the callous disregard smugglers have for their human cargo," Hutchinson said in Washington.
Federal authorities now leading the investigation suspect the migrants were locked inside the trailer.
The sheriff did not release the names and ages of the dead, but one of the victims was identified as an infant by an official with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The smuggled immigrants are from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, Shelby said.
Ratcliff said the people in the truck were not in any legal trouble at this time and that authorities wanted to make sure they got medical attention.
"These individuals are crime victims in our state; they have undergone trauma," Ratcliff said. He said the Mexican consulate had been notified and was sending representatives.
Four of the survivors remained in local hospitals Wednesday night and two of them were in critical condition, Ratcliff said. The rest are staying at a community shelter with food and services provided by the Red Cross, he said, until federal authorities take over.
Dexter Eaves, the district attorney for Victoria County, said officials were still seeking a number of immigrants who may have left the truck and fled before sheriff's officers came on the scene.
"I don't want to call it a hunt," Eaves said. "We're trying to make sure that they get the medical attention that they need."