VICTORIA, Texas - A truck driver whose rig carried 18 illegal immigrants to their deaths has admitted his role in the case, according to government documents made public yesterday, but officials said the masterminds of the smuggling operation remained at large.
The driver, Tyrone Williams, 32, of Schenectady, N.Y., appeared before a U.S. magistrate in Houston and was charged with transporting and harboring illegal immigrants and conspiracy to transport immigrants. Because of the deaths, the charges could carry a life sentence if Williams is convicted, said Victoria County District Attorney Dexter Eaves.
Once the federal case is resolved, state officials expect to charge Williams with murder, he added.
"I'm not belittling what he did. He is fully responsible and will be held accountable," Eaves said. "But my ultimate goal is to make sure that we get not only that driver, but everybody up the food chain. The important thing is that we make sure we get justice for these people - not illegal aliens, or immigrants - these people."
Williams has not entered a plea and does not yet have an attorney.
The charges came as officials continued to investigate the incident, help survivors recuperate and attempt to identify the dead. After speculating Wednesday that there might have been as many as 140 people crammed into the trailer, authorities said yesterday that the correct figure was probably fewer than 100. Many of the migrants spilled from the truck when its doors were opened early Wednesday and fled into the woods.
Seventeen of those aboard the tractor-trailer were from Honduras, including at least one of the dead. Several investigators said they suspect that the organizers of the smuggling scheme - including two suspects listed in an affidavit only as "Joe" and "Abel" - may also have been from Honduras.
"We don't know enough yet," said Lasteria Pineda, a representative of the Honduran Consulate who came to Victoria, a city of 60,000 in South Texas.
Williams, a commercial truck driver who frequently picks up loads of produce near the border, told federal investigators that he was paid $5,000 to drive the immigrants from the Mexican border to Houston, according to an affidavit compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement filed in U.S. District Court.
According to the affidavit, Williams was seeking work Tuesday when he met Joe and Abel in Harlingen, a frequent stopping point for migrants who cross the border illegally in search of jobs. Williams told investigators he waited in the cab of his rig while the group climbed aboard under cover of darkness.
"Williams stated that he could hear the noise from the people getting into the trailer and he could feel the truck rocking back and forth as they loaded," the affidavit said.
Authorities described a harrowing and confusing scene inside the trailer.
The immigrants were probably inside for more than five hours, said Eduardo Ibarrola, Mexico's consul general in Houston. They had no water, food or light during their journey, temperatures soared above 100 degrees and there was not enough air to keep everyone alive, he said. The migrants were so desperate that they tore through the truck's insulation and metal walls to form breathing holes.
"The holes were not enough. They thought they were dying," Ibarrola said of the survivors, who range in age from 14 to about 35. "It was a desperate situation."
Sixty-eight people from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, including eight more found yesterday, are accounted for, and others are apparently still on the run.
Authorities found 13 bodies in the trailer and four on the ground. A 25-year-old man, described erroneously by officials Wednesday as a 91-year-old, went into cardiac arrest and died at a nearby hospital.
Scott Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.