SAN ANTONIO — The driver of a tractor-trailer packed with people illegally entering the United States in an alleged human smuggling operation was indicted Wednesday on charges related to the deaths of 10 people inside.
James Matthew Bradley Jr. was indicted Wednesday by a federal grand jury in San Antonio on five counts, including a count of illegally transporting immigrants for financial gain, resulting in death, and a separate count of conspiracy to transport immigrants illegally.
Those charges carry the possibility of the death penalty. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Antonio declined to say Wednesday if prosecutors would pursue the death penalty. One of Bradley’s attorneys did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Bradley was also indicted on two counts related to illegally transporting immigrants resulting in serious injury, and one count of firearm possession by a convicted felon. The indictment alleges Bradley, who pleaded guilty in 1997 to a felony domestic violence case in Colorado, was in possession of a .38-calibre pistol.
At least 39 people were inside the trailer as it drove from the border city of Laredo to San Antonio, about 150 miles (240 kilometres) north. The trailer’s refrigeration system was broken, and investigators said passengers struggled to breathe as the temperature rose to dangerous levels. One witness told The Associated Press he heard people “crying and asking for water.”
Twenty-two survivors have been released from the hospital and are being held in detention as potential witnesses against Bradley. Two survivors remained hospitalized as of Wednesday.
According to a criminal complaint released in July, Bradley told investigators that the trailer had been sold and he was transporting it for his boss from Iowa to Brownsville, Texas. But said he had driven to Laredo and stopped twice there before driving back to San Antonio, in the opposite direction from Brownsville.
He denied knowing people were inside the trailer. After hearing banging and shaking, he opened the door and was “surprised when he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people and knocked to the ground,” according to the criminal complaint.
Human smuggling operations often linked to Mexican drug cartels are a major problem for law enforcement along the United States’ southern border. Border Patrol agents in West Texas found 20 people crammed in a semitrailer just this week, one day after police in the border city of Edinburg discovered 16 people inside another trailer.
Most of the 39 people known to have been on board were from Mexico. Others are believed to have fled from the truck after it stopped.