James Matthew Bradley Jr., 60, was arrested on Sunday after authorities found eight men dead in the back of his truck parked outside a Walmart store in San Antonio along with scores of other immigrants, including children, suffering from dehydration and heat stroke.
Two people died later at hospitals and dozens of others were treated, officials said. Some immigrants came from Mexico, officials said, and at least two Guatemalans were found alive but dehydrated, the Guatemalan foreign ministry said. Outside temperatures topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius) on Sunday.
Bradley told investigators at the scene he did not know anyone was inside the truck until he parked near the Walmart to use the bathroom, according to the criminal complaint.
Bradley appeared briefly in court to be charged under a law that makes it illegal to transport an immigrant while knowing the person is in the country illegally or in “reckless disregard” of that fact, according to a complaint filed in federal court in San Antonio, about 150 miles (240 km) north of the U.S.-Mexico border. If convicted on the single count, Bradley could face the death penalty or life in prison.
San Antonio police found Bradley inside the tractor-trailer when they arrived, according to an account in the criminal complaint.
He told federal investigators he was driving the tractor-trailer from Iowa to Brownsville, Texas, to deliver it to the new owner. After parking outside the Walmart, he heard banging and shaking.
Bradley opened the doors “and was surprised when he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people and knocked to the ground,” according to the complaint’s summary of the interview. He noticed “bodies just lying on the floor like meat.” Some 30 or 40 people got out and “scattered,” Bradley said.
He called his wife but did not call 911 for emergency services, according to the court documents.
The complaint also included summaries of interviews with people inside the truck. One said conditions became so unbearable inside the pitch-black interior that people took turns to breath through a hole in the vehicle’s side. Others passed out.
The immigrants, who were not named in the complaint, all described getting on the truck at various points on the U.S. side of the border. One said 70 people were already inside when he got on, while another estimated the total at 180 to 200 people.
Six black sports utility vehicles were waiting outside the Walmart when the truck doors were opened, one rider said, and some of the immigrants quickly “swarmed” the SUVs. That contradicted the account of Bradley, who told investigators he did not see any vehicles waiting to pick up passengers.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said video footage showed several other vehicles coming to pick up people who were inside the truck.
Pyle Transportation, which owned the truck, confirmed it was sold a month ago and Bradley was hired to take it to Brownsville, according to a person answering the telephone at the company, who declined to give her name.
Alfredo Villarreal, an assistant federal public defender and one of two lawyers representing Bradley, could not be reached immediately for comment.
Mexico’s government said its consul general in San Antonio was working to identify the victims’ nationalities.
U.S. steps up raids
Raids on suspected illegal immigrants have increased across the United States in recent months, after President Donald Trump vowed to crack down on entrants without authorization or overstaying their visas.
In Texas alone, federal immigration agents arrested 123 illegal immigrants with criminal records in an eight-day operation ending last week.
The San Antonio deaths come more than a decade after what is considered the worst immigrant smuggling case in U.S. history, when 70 people were found stuffed into an 18-wheeler. Nineteen died in the incident in Victoria, Texas, about 100 miles (160 km) southeast of San Antonio, in May 2003.
Experts have been warning that tougher immigration policies could make it harder to stop human trafficking. Measures tightening international borders encourage would-be migrants to turn to smugglers, while fear of deportation deters whistle-blowing, they said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials defended the use of tough methods to fight human smuggling.
“So long as I lead ICE, there will be an unwavering commitment to use law enforcement assets to put an end to these practices,” the agency’s acting director, Thomas Homan, said in a statement.
The Border Patrol has regularly reported finding suspected immigrants in trucks along the U.S. border with Mexico.
This month, 72 Latin Americans were found in a trailer in Laredo. In June, 44 people were found in the back of a vehicle in the same Texas city, which lies directly across the Rio Grande from Mexico.
San Antonio has a policy of not inquiring about the immigration status of people who come into contact with city officials or police.
It was among several cities in Texas that filed a federal lawsuit last month to block a state law set to take effect in September that would force them to cooperate closely with immigration agents.
“San Antonio will not turn its back on any man, woman, or child in need,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a statement responding to the truck deaths.