Truck Driver Pleads Guilty in Deadliest Immigrant-Smuggling Incident in More Than a Decade

Ten people died in the “camión de la muerte” — and some of the survivors remain in ICE detention.

San Antonio police officers investigate the scene where eight people were found dead in a tractor-trailer loaded with at least 30 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. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
San Antonio police officers investigate the scene where a tractor-trailer that transported scores of undocumented immigrants lead to 10 deaths outside a Walmart store in stifling summer heat on July 23, 2017, in San Antonio. Photo: Eric Gay/AP

The driver of a tractor trailer that transported scores of undocumented immigrants to a San Antonio, Texas, Walmart in July — leading to 10 deaths — pleaded guilty on Monday to one count of conspiracy to transport aliens resulting in death and one count of transporting aliens resulting in death. Appearing before a federal judge, James Matthew Bradley, 61, admitted his role in the lethal smuggling operation, the deadliest of its kind in more than a decade.

“By pleading guilty, Bradley admitted that on July 23, 2017, he conspired to transport and did transport undocumented aliens in the United States for financial gain; to further their illegal entry into this country; with reckless disregard that they entered this country illegally; and, which resulted in the death of ten undocumented aliens,” said a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Texas.

After initially facing the death penalty, Bradley now faces life in prison. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for January 28.

In September, shortly after prosecutors announced they were not seeking the death penalty for Bradley, a superseding indictment was entered into court revealing the arrest of a second suspect in the case: Pedro Silva Segura. The 47-year-old Silva Segura faces two conspiracy counts, including one of conspiracy to transport and harbor undocumented immigrants for financial gain resulting in death. He has pleaded not guilty. A trial date in his case has not been set.

A criminal complaint filed in conjunction with Bradley’s arrest painted a harrowing picture of the events that led to the discovery in the Walmart parking lot, with three survivors describing anywhere from 70 to 200 people crammed into his trailer on the drive from Laredo, Texas, on the border with Mexico, to San Antonio. The men said the heat inside in the trailer was stifling — the temperature in San Antonio that day reached 100 degrees — and that those inside shared a single hole in the trailer’s wall to breathe. They banged on the walls of the trailer, the men said, screaming for help, but no one came.

Eight people were found dead on the scene; two more died at the hospital in the hours that followed. According to the San Antonio Police Department, surveillance footage captured several vehicles pulling up to the trailer before authorities arrived and taking away an unknown number of individuals. Among the nearly 40 people left behind — including four minors, ages 14 to 17 — several were discovered unconscious. An expansive rescue operation was undertaken, with immigrants facing potential brain damage raced to seven area hospitals, where many of them would remain for weeks to come.

Nina Pruneda, a spokesperson with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s San Antonio office, told The Intercept nine survivors of the journey currently remain in ICE custody; seven have been deported; one adult male remains hospitalized; the four minors in the case were transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement; the rest, Pruneda said, have been released from ICE custody, stating that “they would be living with their sponsor” in the U.S.

James Mathew Bradley Jr., 60, of Clearwater, Florida, center, is escorted out of the federal courthouse following 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. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

James Matthew Bradley is escorted out of the federal courthouse following a hearing on July 24, 2017, in San Antonio.

Photo: Eric Gay/AP

Lawyers for survivors of the smuggling operation Bradley played a role in said the news received a mixed reaction from their clients.

“Mr. Bradley’s guilty plea is simply a step in the healing process for our clients,” Griselda Barrera, director of the San Antonio office of American Gateways, one of the legal organizations representing survivors in the case, told The Intercept. “Although our clients are happy to hear that Mr. Bradley took accountability for his actions, it does not take away the physical and emotional damage caused by his actions.”

In an interview with Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, agents following his arrest, Bradley admitted the refrigeration system in his trailer was not functioning, though he said he had no idea there were people inside. Monday’s statement from the U.S. attorney’s office marked a reversal of that position. The Department of Justice reported that Bradley, who had initially pleaded not guilty, acknowledged that survivor accounts of the journey detailed in court documents were “factually correct.”

“Today’s admission of guilt by Mr. Bradley helps to close the door on one of the conspirators responsible for causing the tragic loss of life and wreaking havoc on those who survived this horrific incident,” Shane M. Folden, the special agent in charge of HSI’s San Antonio office, said Monday. “This case is a glaring reminder that alien smugglers are driven by greed and have little regard for the health and well-being of their human cargo, which can prove to be a deadly combination.”

Following the discovery of the trailer, Jack Staton, HSI’s acting assistant director of intelligence, said human smuggling was “100 percent [a] crime against humanity” and reflected the victimization of “people that are attempting to get a better life.”

In the weeks after the survivors were found, their attorneys questioned whether their clients were granted the care and consideration that victims of such serious crimes deserve. Within days, seven of the survivors were moved from the emergency room to HSI headquarters, where they voluntarily provided investigators with information on their journey. In an investigation published by The Intercept in September, Jonathan Ryan, an attorney representing some of the survivors who was present for those early interviews, said his clients were informed of the existence of special visas designed for the victims of certain crimes who cooperate with law enforcement. Lawyers for the survivors maintain that their clients were cooperative throughout the government’s investigation.

From the moment they were recovered, all of the survivors in the case were kept either in the hospital or in federal custody. More than 20 were officially detained as material witnesses in the government’s case against Bradley. Their attorneys unsuccessfully lobbied the U.S. attorney’s office to exercise its authority to release the survivors from detention as the case proceeded, noting that they located family members who volunteered to house their loved ones. The U.S. attorney’s office did not budge. Instead, the adult survivors were kept in the same detention center as Bradley. According to Michael McCrum, a federal defender appointed to represent the material witnesses, at least two of the survivors were at one point kept in the same holding cell as Bradley for more than an hour.

On September 5, the U.S. attorney’s office in San Antonio dismissed all of the material witnesses in the case without warning to their attorneys, moving to officially transfer them from U.S. Marshal custody to ICE custody. The following day, two of the survivors were deported, while a third was released to Florida. Two weeks later, the U.S. attorney’s office notified the court that it was no longer seeking the death penalty against Bradley, and prosecutors filed the superseding indictment against Silva Segura, the second suspect in the case.

Top photo: San Antonio police officers investigate the scene where a tractor trailer that transported scores of undocumented immigrants led to 10 deaths outside a Walmart store in stifling summer heat on July 23, 2017, in San Antonio.

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