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After deadly smuggling case, officials charge truck driver and decry ‘crime against humanity’

Ten people have died in a case of suspected smuggling in San Antonio. Police found a sweltering truck with at least 39 people inside on July 22. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

The people packed into the sweltering tractor-trailer needed air. They banged on the walls for help, but the vehicle kept going. Trapped with as many as 200 people in the pitch-black trailer, they took turns breathing through a hole in the side. Some just passed out.

They had been tagged with colored tape, allowing the smugglers to more easily sort them at the journey’s end — who would be handed off to which awaiting vehicle.

The account laid out in a federal court filing Monday came from men who chronicled their harrowing journeys to a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio. Some had traveled hundreds of miles from central Mexico.

Prosecutors charged the truck’s driver — James Matthew Bradley Jr., 60 — with smuggling immigrants for financial gain resulting in death, a charge that could carry the death penalty because it resulted in people dying while in transit.

At least eight migrants perished inside the trailer; two others died later. Dozens of others remain in seven area hospitals, some with critical injuries. All of the dead or injured were undocumented, federal authorities said.

It’s unknown what happened to the scores of others who the migrants told investigators had been in the trailer with them.

Before the truck was found in the Walmart parking lot here, some travelers had spent days held in a house near the border with Mexico. Some were told to pay thousands of dollars to a group linked to a deadly Mexican drug cartel for safe passage across the Rio Grande. Bradley told authorities he was unaware of the trailer’s cargo and was surprised when he realized people had been trapped inside.

The truck’s discovery revealed the group’s horrifying journey to the United States at a time when immigration arrests have spiked under President Trump and illegal border crossings have plummeted, according to federal officials. The case also highlighted the extreme dangers people face as they try to enter the country.

Read the federal criminal complaint

“To maximize their criminal profits, these human smugglers crammed more than 100 people into a tractor trailer in the stifling Texas summer heat,” Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement Monday. “Our ICE agents and officers, working closely with our law enforcement partners, will pursue these smugglers and bring them to justice.”

Based on preliminary information from its consulate in San Antonio, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry confirmed late Monday that 25 of 39 victims were Mexican nationals. Of the 10 dead, four were Mexican. Of the 29 who remained hospitalized, 21 are Mexican, two are nationals of another country, and the nationalities of six remain unknown.

The Salvadoran consulate in McAllen, Tex., said that so far, none of the victims are from El Salvador. The Guatemalan consulate did not immediately return a phone call.

At the Mexican Consulate, workers fielded calls Monday from the migrants’ relatives, who reached out from places including Colorado and Ohio, as well as Mexico.

Consul General Reyna Torres said she and the consulates of El Salvador and Guatemala met with Homeland Security authorities Monday. She said she had not been notified that any passengers from the truck had been formally detained or arrested.

Certain visas allow victims of some crimes to remain in the United States if they can help authorities investigate or prosecute crimes. The Department of Homeland Security declined to say whether the people in the trailer would be allowed to remain in the United States or sent back to their countries of origin.

Jack Staton, acting assistant director of intelligence for ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations arm, called human smuggling “100 percent [a] crime against humanity,” adding that “this is just victimizing people that are attempting to get a better life.”

One man, who was not identified, told investigators he began his journey in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and was to pay smugglers $5,500 when he arrived in San Antonio, according to his account, written by James Lara, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations.

In Nuevo Laredo, a Mexican city on the Texas border, the man said, he waited with a group of 28 people before a smuggler told him that people linked to the Zetas — a violent drug cartel — were charging 12,500 pesos (more than $700 dollars) to bring people across the Rio Grande in rafts.

The Zetas drug cartel has long been involved in trafficking immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, with migrants from Central America saying smugglers have to pay off corrupt police and drug cartels alike while traveling through Mexico. The cartel has been known to exert particular influence in the northern Mexican border states, operating safe houses where large groups of migrants are stashed before being ferried across the Rio Grande.

The man from Aguascalientes said that after his group crossed the river, they walked for a while and were brought to the tractor-trailer, where they joined dozens of others inside. It was morning, he said, and they were told their journey would begin later that evening.

Another man told federal agents that he was among two dozen people who had been held in a “stash house” in Laredo, Tex., for 11 days before arriving at the trailer, which he said was already crowded and sweltering when he arrived, Lara wrote.

“The smugglers closed the doors and the interior of the trailer was pitch black and it was already hot inside,” Lara wrote in the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. “He stated they were not provided with any water or food. People inside were making noise to get someone’s attention but nobody ever came.”

It was not until that night, Lara said, that the doors reopened and people inside were told it was time to go.

Authorities have focused their investigation on Bradley, the tractor-trailer’s driver. Bradley owned the truck found outside Walmart early Sunday but not the trailer, according to public records. He told federal agents that the trailer’s refrigeration system did not work and that the vent holes were likely clogged, according to the complaint.

Bradley bought the truck — a 1999 Peterbilt model that had been refurbished and given a new paint job — in March for $90,000, said Justin McDaniel of Outlaw Iron in West Bend, Wis., who sold him the truck. McDaniel recalled Bradley as friendly and “your typical Southern guy.”

“That’s why the accusations being made now caught me by surprise,” McDaniel said. “It’s very disturbing.”

Bradley had taken out a pair of loans earlier this year to buy a truck and trailer for which he needed to make payments of almost $2,000 a month, according to records.

Alton Bradley, the driver’s nephew, said the man nicknamed “Bear” is a lifelong trucker with a passion for the work. When he heard the news, Alton Bradley, who lives in Florida, said he called his aunt — the driver’s sister — and she responded, “I’m just sick,” and “I can’t believe it.”

Brian Pyle, president of Pyle Transportation, the Iowa-based trucking company with which Bradley is affiliated, said Sunday that Bradley owned his truck and operated with a significant degree of autonomy under what is known as a “leaser” contract.

Pyle said he did not know what Bradley was transporting. Asked how long he had worked with Bradley, Pyle said it was the driver’s “very first trip.”

Bradley, who sports a Pyle T-shirt in his Facebook profile picture, is Facebook friends with Brian Pyle, at least one other member of the Pyle family and other Pyle truck drivers.

Asked again about the length of his relationship with Bradley, Pyle hung up the phone.

The truck had not been outside the store long: Surveillance video showed that it was parked outside Walmart for just 30 minutes before one of the store workers encountered someone from the trailer asking for water, a company spokesman said.

It remains unclear whether the operation discovered Sunday was related to the driver or the company, which has 18 trucks and 15 drivers, according to federal records.

Bradley has said he was unaware there were people inside the trailer, which was emblazoned with the Pyle decal.

In the complaint, Lara wrote that Bradley told agents he was traveling from Iowa to Brownsville, Tex., to deliver the trailer. Bradley said his boss had sold the trailer and asked him to deliver it and that he wasn’t told a delivery address or a desired time frame.

Bradley appeared in court Monday with his arms shackled and was ordered held until a bond hearing on Thursday.

When the trailer eventually stopped at Walmart, one of the migrants told investigators, people inside the trailer were so weak that they toppled over. Bradley told Lara he got out to go to the bathroom and heard banging and shaking from the trailer.

“Bradley said he went to open the doors and was surprised when he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people and knocked to the ground,” Lara wrote. “Bradley said he then noticed bodies just lying on the floor like meat. Bradley said he knew at least one of them was dead.”

Bradley told agents that he called his wife, who did not answer, and did not call 911. The complaint does not elaborate on why he did not call police. Between 30 and 40 people scrambled out of the trailer after the doors were opened, Bradley said.

Bradley and one of those inside the truck offered different accounts of what happened next. The driver told federal agents that no one else was there when he parked and that no vehicles were there to pick up anyone. The man from Aguascalientes said that once the vehicle stopped and people flooded out of the trailer, six black SUVs were on hand to pick them up and filled up in minutes before quickly leaving.

Berman and Bever reported from Washington. Alice Crites, Abigail Hauslohner, Julie Tate and Todd Frankel in Washington; Josh Partlow in Mexico City; and Jon Silman in Land O’ Lakes, Fla., contributed to this report.