Truck driver charged in immigrant smuggling

Friday, May 16, 2003

HOUSTON -- The driver of the tractor-trailer that became a sweltering deathtrap for 18 people was charged Thursday with transporting and harboring illegal immigrants, and authorities searched for three more suspects in one of the deadliest smuggling schemes in U.S. history.

The driver, Tyrone Williams of Schenectady, N.Y., at first told authorities he thought his trailer was empty, then admitted he was paid $2,500 by two men to take 16 immigrants from the Mexican border into South Texas, according to court papers.

He claimed he did not watch as the immigrants were loaded into his trailer Tuesday night, though he could feel the truck rocking back and forth as he sat in the cab.

The trailer was actually packed with 100 men, women and children from Mexico and Central America.

Seventeen died inside and another at a hospital in Victoria, where the trailer was discovered abandoned early Wednesday.

Williams, 32, claimed he threw open the doors after discovering the dead and dying immigrants inside, then drove off. Authorities, however, said the doors had to be opened by sheriff's deputies.

Eduardo Ibarrola, Mexico's consul general in Houston who has interviewed some of the survivors, said the immigrants crossed the border in different ways before gathering in Harlingen, at the southern tip of Texas, for a 300-mile ride up U.S. 77 to Houston.

He said they were loaded into the trailer around 10 p.m. Tuesday and were surprised at how crowded it was. He said there was no water, no light and not nearly enough air.

"They didn't realize the danger of the situation," Ibarrola said. "They realized (too late) that there were so many people, that there was no air and that they could not get out."

The immigrants were found about four hours later at a truck stop near Victoria.

Authorities said they were still looking for "Joe," "Abel" and "Fatima" in the smuggling scheme. All four suspects could get life in prison, perhaps even the death penalty, federal prosecutor Don DeGabrielle said.

Williams was arrested in the Houston area Wednesday, hours after the grim discovery in his trailer 115 miles away.

He did not enter a plea to the federal charges and remains jailed pending a bond hearing. He did not yet have an attorney.

According to court papers filed by investigators, Williams said he felt "shock, fear and confusion" after he discovered the immigrants gasping for air. He said he unhitched the trailer at the truck stop and then drove to a Houston hospital, where he initially told authorities he had thought the trailer was empty. It is not clear why he went to the hospital.

After authorities talked to a survivor, Williams changed his story.

He allegedly told authorities he had met two men -- "Joe" and "Abel" -- on Tuesday and they paid him $2,500 to take a small group of immigrants from Harlingen to Robstown, 110 miles away.

After he began driving, Williams told authorities, one of the men called him on his cellular phone and told him they would pay an additional $2,500 if he took the immigrants all the way to Houston, 200 miles farther.

Williams said he pulled over at the truck stop because he saw a light dangling from his trailer. When he pulled over, "he heard banging and screaming coming from the trailer of the truck," authorities said.

"He heard a female voice screaming over and over, 'El nino!"' according to the court papers, a reference to a child.

Authorities said Williams and the woman who was with him, identified only as Fatima, went into the gas station and bought 20 bottles of water for the immigrants. It was then, Williams said, that he opened the trailer's doors and saw the dead immigrants.

According to Williams, he and his companion left the trailer doors open while they unhitched the cab.

Authorities caught up with Williams at the Houston hospital, where he arrived early Wednesday with Fatima. He said met her at a truck stop in Harlingen and gave her a ride. Authorities said she apparently left the hospital.

As the criminal investigation began, some said strict U.S. immigration policies may have indirectly contributed to the tragedy.

Edgar Holguin, managing attorney for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, said the policies have made smuggling more lucrative and have pushed smugglers to find ways to get large numbers of people across the border.

"These folks are just coming up here to work or to reunite with family," Holguin said. "Once they've crossed over the border, smugglers have them, unfortunately, at their complete mercy."

Officials said most of the immigrants were from Mexico, while others were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Thirteen victims have been identified, including a 6-year-old boy. Among the dead were Roberto Rivera, 24, his brother Serafin Rivera, 34, and Hector Ramirez, 34, all from Juventino Rosas, Mexico.

Forty-five survivors remain at a makeshift shelter in Victoria, while six others are hospitalized, including two in intensive care.

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