Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The driver of a tractor-trailer that became a death chamber for 10 immigrants crossing into Texas from Mexico and left nearly 30 others suffering from heat-related injuries and trauma has given federal investigators an unconvincing account of events leading up to the grim Sunday morning discovery.
The victims, traveling north in the company of paid smugglers, were packed inside the trailer without food or air conditioning for the journey from the border north to San Antonio. An employee at a Walmart in southwest San Antonio who responded to one of the escaped passenger’s request for water notified San Antonio police who began emergency response efforts early Sunday morning.
(Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story said that the driver asked the Walmart employee for water.)
The account given to authorities by tractor-trailer driver James Matthew Bradley Jr., 60, offers a narrative of events that includes his claim he left the rig to be washed at a Laredo facility before driving to San Antonio unaware of his human cargo packed inside, according to documents released to the Rivard Report by the U.S. Attorney’s office here.
Bradley told authorities he only learned of the immigrants’ presence and dire condition after making a bathroom stop at the Walmart at 8538 South Interstate 35 and TX Hwy. 16, and heard loud banging coming from inside the trailer. He said he opened the rear doors and “was surprised when he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people.”
Update at 9:30 p.m. The Mexican Consulate in San Antonio issued a statement Monday evening outlining preliminary information about the victims. Of the 10 that lost their lives so far, four are believed to be Mexican citizens. Of the 29 other victims, 21 are Mexican, two are from other countries, and six have not confirmed their nationality.
According to other media reports, at least one of the deceased was Guatemalan.
Bradley claimed that there were no vehicles waiting to pick up the immigrants, contrary to what San Antonio police report can be seen in surveillance footage, with 30-40 people fleeing the vehicle into the surrounding parking lot.
There are other unlikely turns in Bradley’s story that underscore how challenging it is for law enforcement agencies to penetrate human smuggling rings where drivers are often paid to make trips without necessarily knowing who they are working for or other details that can lead back to the organized crime rings engaged in the smuggling.
Bradley’s account does not answer whether the migrants willingly boarded the tractor-trailer or were forced to do so by smugglers. Three survivors interviewed by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) officials said they were attempting to enter the U.S. from Mexico and had paid smugglers for their passage.
“To maximize their criminal profits, these human smugglers crammed more than 100 people into a tractor-trailer in the stifling Texas summer heat resulting in 10 dead and 29 others hospitalized,” acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan said in the statement issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “Human smugglers have repeatedly demonstrated that they have absolutely no regard for human life. Our ICE agents and officers, working closely with our law enforcement partners, will pursue these smugglers and bring them to justice.”
Bradley has been charged with one count of transporting illegal aliens, U.S. Attorney Richard L. Durbin Jr., and U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agent-in-Charge Shane Folden stated in a joint release on Monday that included an account of Bradley’s version of events.
The charges carry the maximum sentence of death or life in prison, as well as a $250,000 fine and three years supervised release in the event he is eventually paroled.
Bradley said his boss hired him to transport the trailer from Schaller, Iowa, a small town east of Sioux City, to its new owner in Brownsville. He did not have the address of the new owner, nor a time frame set for the delivery.
Instead of traveling down I-37 to U.S. Hwy. 281 to Brownsville, Bradley said he drove south on I-35 to Laredo and then reversed course to San Antonio after making two stops to have the tractor-trailer washed, detailed, and polished. He claims the stops were at unnamed truck stops at mile markers 3 and 13 on I-35.
He was unable to explain his detour to San Antonio, which would have added 230 miles to his trip, turning a three-hour journey from Laredo to Brownsville to an eight-hour journey via San Antonio.
Bradley said he only discovered the presence of human cargo when he heard banging on the trailer during his bathroom stop at the Walmart where the incident then unfolded. He claims he called his wife rather than 911. Police credited the Walmart employee with sounding the alarm. Bradley was seated in his truck cab when police arrived, but claimed to have made efforts to render first aid to the victims.
Testimony from three of the surviving passengers suggest a very different scenario with a more coordinated effort by desperate smugglers. Identified only by their initials in investigative reports, the three passengers said they were among a large group of other migrants who boarded the truck in Laredo.
One surviving migrant told investigators he had traveled from Aguascalientes, Mexico, with San Antonio as his final destination, via Laredo. Crossing the Rio Grande River from Nuevo Laredo, the man said that he paid the equivalent of $705 to smugglers at the river for a spot on a raft and protection by the Zetas, a powerful Mexican drug cartel. He was expecting to pay another $5,500 upon arrival in San Antonio. He boarded the trailer around 9 p.m. one night later in Laredo.
A second survivor interviewed by HSI investigators claimed to have been left in a “stash house” in Laredo for 11 days with 24 others, including seven of his distant relatives. His final destination also was San Antonio.
A third survivor said that his final destination was Minnesota, and that he had paid the equivalent of $3,385 for “the Mexican portion of his trip to the United States.”
The survivor testimonies put the number of people in trailer anywhere between 70 and 200 at various points in the day leading up to their discovery. They described deteriorating conditions inside as passengers succumbed to the heat.
The first survivor’s testimony included details about how the smugglers used colored tapes to sort the passengers for the next leg of the smuggling operation. When the doors opened in San Antonio, he described six black SUVs waiting. The cars quickly filled and then departed, while the rest of the passengers were left to wait.
Smugglers had told the migrants that the trailer had refrigeration, and not to worry about the heat.
The documents released Monday offer the first details about one of the worst human smuggling fatalities to be recorded in Texas, where U.S. Border Patrol and ICE officials have encountered a growing number of tractor-trailers being used to smuggle migrants from Mexico into Texas.