SAN ANTONIO — James Matthew Bradley Jr. claims he had no idea dozens of undocumented immigrants were stuffed inside the brutally hot semi truck he was driving.
That’s the story he told federal investigators, who clearly don’t believe him. The 60-year-old Florida man is now charged with knowingly transporting illegal aliens.
Bradley was driving the tractor trailer found parked at a Walmart in San Antonio, Texas, early Sunday morning. After an employee noticed the suspicious vehicle and called police, authorities found as many as 100 undocumented immigrants inside.
Eight of them were already dead, and two more died after being hospitalized. Dozens more were severely injured, and many will suffer from “irreversible brain damage,” the city’s fire chief said.
San Antonio’s police chief called the case “a human trafficking crime.”
“Checking the video from the store, we found there were a number of vehicles that came in and picked up a lot of the folks that were in that trailer that survived the trip,” Police Chief William McManus said.
But the truck driver said he didn’t know what — or who — he was hauling.
Driver said he was surprised by ‘Spanish’ people
When police came to investigate the semi, an officer found “multiple people standing and laying at and around the rear of the trailer,” according to a criminal complaint against Bradley.
That’s when they started talking to the driver.
“Bradley advised the officer that the trailer he was hauling had been sold and he was transporting the trailer from Schaller, Iowa, to Brownsville, Texas,” on the border with Mexico, the federal criminal complaint says. “Bradley stated he was unaware of the contents and/or cargo.”
It wasn’t until Bradley parked his tractor-trailer and went outside to urinate that he heard movements in the trailer, the driver told investigators.
“Bradley said he went to open the doors and was surprised when he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people and knocked to the ground,” the complaint states.
“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 said he knew the trailer refrigeration system didn’t work and that the 4 vent holes were probably clogged up.”
But the driver didn’t call 911, authorities said. Instead, he went back to the tractor and called his wife.
A horrific journey
Homeland Security Investigations agents interviewed several of the undocumented immigrants who had been hospitalized.
One said he left the central Mexican city of Aguascalientes and waited with about 28 other people in Nuevo Laredo to be smuggled across the river into the United States.
He told investigators he paid about 12,500 pesos ($707) for protection and a raft ride across a deep portion of the Rio Grande. After crossing at night, “they walked until the next day,” the court document states.
At 9 a.m the next day, his group was picked up in a silver Chevrolet Silverado truck and taken to the trailer — which already had about 70 people inside, the criminal complaint says.
“He was told to get inside and he would be transported later that evening. The smugglers closed the door and the interior of the trailer was pitch black and it was already hot inside.”
With no food or water, the migrants tried to make noise and get the driver’s attention, “but nobody ever came.”
Twelve hours later, they were moved to another trailer, the man said. Some people had trouble breathing and passed out.
When the trailer eventually braked hard and stopped, some people fell over because they were so weak, the man said. After the door opened, six black SUVs were waiting to pick up the people — but those SUVs quickly filled up and took off.
The man said once he arrived in San Antonio, he was supposed to pay his smugglers $5,500. But instead he was taken to a hospital, too severely injured from the journey.
“These people were helpless in the hands of their transporters,” said Richard L. Durbin Jr., US attorney for the Western District of Texas. “All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo.”
Authorities have not released the nationalities of the people crammed inside the tractor trailer. But the Mexican government issued a statement offering its condolences to the families of the victims.
“Mexico’s consulate in San Antonio is working closely with local and federal authorities, hospitals and coroners to learn the victims’ nationalities and to provide the necessary consular protection and assistance, including the repatriation of the remains of Mexican victims, if any,” the statement reads.
‘Irreversible brain damage’
The tip-off to authorities started when a man from the trailer asked a Walmart employee for water, the police chief said. The employee was concerned and called police for a welfare check.
The fire department also responded and soon declared a ‘mass casualty incident,’ San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said.
“With heat strokes or heat injuries, a lot of them are going to have some irreversible brain damage,” he said.
A heatstroke can cause swelling of the brain and other vital organs, possibly causing permanent damage, if a person’s body temperature isn’t quickly lowered, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Officials said the air conditioner in the trailer was not working. And the high temperature in San Antonio on Saturday was 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius).
“Unfortunately, some of them were severely overheated, and that was a refrigerated truck with no refrigeration,” Hood said. “So we were very fortunate that they were found.”
Two of the people hospitalized are 15 years old, the fire department said.
Echoes of 2003 case
Even in a state where human smuggling happens with alarming frequency, Sunday’s discovery stirred memories of a 2003 case in Victoria, Texas, that left 19 people dead. At the time, a border and transportation security official called it “the greatest loss of life in recent history in what appears to be an alien smuggling case.”
The victims, ranging from a 7-year-old boy to a 91-year-old man, died of asphyxiation, dehydration or heat. They had been crowded in the back of a truck with about 100 other people, with temperatures soaring past 100 degrees Fahrenheit, investigators said.
The driver in that case, Tyrone Mapletoft Williams of Schenectady, New York, was initially sentenced to life in prison, but in 2011 was resentenced to almost 34 years in prison.
Thomas Homan, the current acting director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was a lead investigator in the Victoria case.
Last month, he disputed the notion that his policies were heartless and said the humane thing to do is to deter people from paying the human smugglers and cartels that are the only way to illegally cross the Southwest border.
“Why am I so strong in what I’m trying to do? Because people haven’t seen what Tom Homan’s seen,” Homan said.
“They haven’t seen the dead immigrants on a trail that were left stranded. … People weren’t standing with me in Victoria, Texas, in the back of a tractor-trailer with 19 dead aliens including a five-year-old child laying dead under his father that suffocated.”
‘Human trafficking is an epidemic’
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the deaths were “a heartbreaking tragedy.”
US Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat who represents parts of San Antonio, called for reform.
“Horrific scene overnight in San Antonio where a human smuggling attempt turned deadly,” Doggett tweeted.
“Prosecute smugglers, pray for survivors and the victims’ families, stop the hysteria, reform our broken immigration system.”
Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, railed against sanctuary cities on Sunday after authorities in his state discovered eight people dead inside a sweltering tractor-trailer in a San Antonio Walmart parking lot and about 17 others in critical condition.
Patrick, a Republican, posted on Facebook that the ‘tragedy’ is why he pushed a bill to ban sanctuary cities.
“Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law. Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform so we can control who enters our country. We continue to pray for the families and friends of the victims,” he posted.
Authorities were called to the parking lot late Saturday or early Sunday and found eight people dead inside the truck. Two additional victims died at the hospital, officials said.
The victims “were very hot to the touch. So these people were in this trailer without any signs of any type of water,” San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said. Authorities would not say whether the trailer was locked when they arrived, but they said it had no working air conditioning.
Four of the survivors appeared to be between 10 and 17 years old, Homan said. Investigators gave no details on where the rig began its journey or where it was headed.