Smuggling charges filed after 18 human cargo die
HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- A federal prosecutor filed smuggling charges Thursday against the owner and driver of a truck allegedly used to bring suspected illegal immigrants from Mexico in a trip that left 18 people dead.
The victims, ranging from a 7-year-old boy to a 91-year-old man, suffocated Wednesday after riding in the back of the semitrailer with dozens of others from Mexico to south Texas, said U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby.
Tyrone Williams of Schenectady, New York, has been charged with smuggling aliens and conspiracy, Shelby said, adding that more indictments will be handed up that could result in additional charges.
Williams -- a legal permanent U.S. resident from Jamaica and the truck's registered owner -- was arrested Wednesday in Bel Air, Texas, Shelby said. He is currently being held without bond.
Williams made an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Houston Thursday. However, since he had no attorney with him, he was ordered back to court Friday. That hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. (3 p.m. EDT).
In an affidavit filed Thursday, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Steven E. Greenwell said Williams told officers that two men paid him $5,000 to bring what he thought was a group of 16 people to Houston.
According to the criminal complaint, Williams saw an object dangling from the trailer so he stopped at a Victoria, Texas, gas station.
When approaching the back of the trailer, Williams heard banging and screaming. He opened the trailer door and panicked when he saw that something "appeared to be wrong" with the passengers jammed into the sweltering trailer, according to the complaint.
One woman reportedly screamed, "El niņo! El niņo!" which is Spanish for "the boy," an apparent reference to a 7-year-old boy who died.
Williams said he ran into the gas station and bought 20 bottles of water for the migrants. He then unhitched the trailer and drove 120 miles to Houston where he went into a hospital.
Nurses there said that Williams appeared agitated and nervous. They also said he had a woman passenger in the cab, according to the complaint.
The criminal complaint against Williams also names Joe, Abel, and the female passenger Fatima -- all with last names unknown. Authorities say the woman is Hispanic with a dark complexion and one of the men is white "who perhaps speaks Spanish," Shelby did not detail what their involvement may be.
Officials believe anywhere from 107 to 137 passengers from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador were packed in the truck. One of them, Oscar Estrada, said he was to pay $1,000 for his transport.
Some 20 to 50 people fled from the back of the truck as deputies tried to administer first aid to the 62 left behind, Victoria County Sheriff Mike Ratcliff said.
Of the 18 people who died, 13 were found inside the truck, and four were found on the ground outside, Ratcliff said. One person died at a hospital.
Seven of the survivors were in hospitals, and two of them were in critical condition, the sheriff said. At the moment, the rest are staying at a community shelter with food and services provided by the Red Cross, he said.
Three of the people who fled were found Thursday by authorities in the general area of the "crime scene," assistant U.S. attorney Daniel Rodriguez said.
Federal authorities leading the investigation said they believe the suspected illegal immigrants were locked inside the truck. All the deaths were due to asphyxiation, dehydration or heat-related conditions, officials said.
Investigators said the temperature in the truck was hotter than 100 degrees. They said the truck was equipped with a functioning refrigeration system, but it was not turned on.
The scope of the case became clear after officers from the Victoria County Sheriff's Office responded to a 911 call. Authorities told CNN they were alerted to the truck when one of those packed inside used a cell phone to call 911 and pleaded for help.
"When the deputies opened the door, they didn't expect that there was going to be people inside," Shelby said, "and when they opened this door, they were flooded by human beings that were pouring out of there."
Investigators said they believe that the trailer had been parked at the convenience store on U.S. 77 for less than a day and that people had not been inside it for much longer.
But Victoria County District Attorney Dexter Eaves said, "In my opinion, they were in there a real long time."
Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security, called the situation "the greatest loss of life in recent history in what appears to be an alien smuggling case" and said he has given the investigation "the highest priority."
"This grim discovery is a horrific reminder of the callous disregard smugglers have for their human cargo," Hutchinson said in Washington.
Bob Wallis, regional director for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, called it a "heinous, heinous crime."
Penalties for immigrant smuggling resulting in death range from life in prison to no jail time at all, Shelby said. However, if the death is found to be intentional, a defendant could be subject to the death penalty, he said.
Authorities said Williams has a business transporting milk from New York to Texas and transporting watermelons back to New York.