The man who drove an unrefrigerated tractor-trailer crammed with dozens of undocumented immigrants, 10 of whom died, pleaded guilty Monday and could spend the rest of his life in prison.
On July 23, authorities in Texas found 39 undocumented immigrants in the back of the tractor-trailer, which had been left in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio. Eight people found inside were dead, while the others were transported to local hospitals. Two others died overnight.
James Matthew Bradley of Florida pleaded guilty to conspiracy to transport and harbor undocumented immigrants for financial gain resulting in death. He will be sentenced in January and could face up to life in prison.
Authorities believe the deaths were caused by asphyxiation and heat exposure, and called it a "horrific" case of human trafficking. The 39 undocumented immigrants were crammed into the trailer in the stifling summer heat of Texas were forced to take turns breathing through one hole in a wall, according to a criminal complaint.
As of August, 22 of the individuals found in the vehicle have been released from the hospital and are in federal custody as potential witnesses in the case, according to the Justice Department. Two people remain hospitalized, and five people, including four juveniles, have been turned over to immigration authorities.
Authorities who responded to a call shortly after midnight on July 23 found Bradley in the cab of the tractor-trailer, and the group of undocumented immigrants standing and lying in the back of the truck.
Bradley claimed that he was transporting the trailer from Schaller, Iowa, to Brownsville, Texas, to deliver it to its new owner. He denied knowing that there were people inside, and claimed he only discovered them when he left the vehicle to urinate.
Bradley told authorities that he stopped at the Walmart after hearing "banging and shaking in the trailer." Upon opening the trailer, Bradley claimed, about 30 to 40 people ran out.
He was surprised, he told police, when "he was run over by 'Spanish' people and knocked to the ground," according to the criminal complaint.
Bradley told authorities that he knew the trailer refrigeration system didn't work and the vent holes "were probably clogged up." He also said that he noticed bodies "just lying on the floor like meat," the complaint stated.
The complaint also alleged that Bradley tried to call his wife, but did not call 911.
Some of the undocumented immigrants interviewed by authorities described how they had been smuggled in different groups at different times across the Rio Grande River near Laredo, Texas. The Justice Department's release Wednesday identified seven of the deceased victims as Mexican citizens, and an eighth victim as a citizen of Guatemala.
Three of the undocumented immigrants interviewed estimated that the trailer contained anywhere between 70 to 200 people during the trip to San Antonio.Some told police they had been harbored in stash locations and then picked up by the tractor-trailer, stating differing fees they paid for being transported.
The man assured them that the trailer had refrigeration and told them not to worry about the trip, according to the complaint. But as the night wore on, people began to have trouble breathing and some started to pass out, the complaint said.
People began hitting the trailer walls and making noises to get the driver's attention, but he did not stop, according to the undocumented immigrants interviewed by authorities.
"People had a hole in the trailer wall to provide some ventilation and they started taking turns breathing from the hole," the complaint states.
When the driver arrived at the destination, he braked hard, causing people inside to fall over because they were so weak, one of the undocumented immigrants told authorities. When the doors opened, they swarmed out and ran into six black SUVs that were waiting to pick them up, the witness said. The SUVs were filled in a matter of minutes and left, he added.
"To maximize their criminal profits, these human smugglers crammed more than 100 people into a tractor-trailer in the stifling Texas summer heat resulting in 10 dead and 20 others hospitalized," acting US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan said in a statement.
"Human smugglers have repeatedly demonstrated that they have absolutely no regard for human life," Homan added, adding that authorities would "pursue these smugglers and bring them to justice."
Tasneem Nashrulla is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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Brianna Sacks is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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