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Home  >  Topics  >  Investigations

May 16, 2003
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Agents On Lookout for 3 Other Suspects in Tex. Immigrant Smuggling Case

By Bill Murphy and Mary Fergus, The Houston Chronicle

VICTORIA, Tex. -- A truck-driving legal immigrant from Jamaica faced charges Thursday that could lead to his execution after he fingered himself as one of the smugglers in the deaths of 18 illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

As the saga of the doomed Houston-bound travelers took on more details in several locations across North America, federal agents searched for two other men and a woman who may have been part of the smuggling conspiracy.

The stories of the dead and their companions who survived unfolded in a hilly Mexican town, autopsy rooms in Austin, at the driver's residence in upstate New York and in a federal courtroom in downtown Houston.

In Houston, Jamaica-born Tyrone Williams, 32, of Schenectady, N.Y., was charged with harboring 85 immigrants from Mexico and Central America and conspiring to smuggle them.

The charges against Williams, and the other suspects who had not been fully identified or arrested by late Thursday, could lead to the death penalty, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle said.

Eighteen of the immigrants, including a boy of 6, died late Tuesday or early Wednesday after the group was packed into Williams' enclosed truck and taken from Harlingen to a truck stop on U.S. 77 near Victoria, officials said. The deaths were apparently from heat exhaustion.

Williams admitted to federal agents that he was driving the immigrants to Houston for $5,000, according to court records, and that he abandoned his trailer near here after discovering that some of his concealed passengers were slumped onto the hot vehicle's floor.

"He heard a female voice screaming over and over, `El nino,' " according to an affidavit by Steven Greenwell, agent for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In Spanish, the words mean "the boy."

Williams, in federal custody without bail being set, initially told his wife in New York that his truck trailer had been hijacked. But after he was arrested in Houston Wednesday, he changed his explanation to federal agents more than once, each time placing himself deeper into the plan to ship the sweaty human cargo.

The $5,000 was to come from other smugglers who had gathered the immigrants on the Texas side of the Mexican border, Williams told investigators.

At government offices in Mexico and Central America, most of the dead and many of the survivors were identified by name and in some cases by hometown.

At least two of the dead, Oscar and Ricardo Gonzalez of San Luis Potosi, had cousins in Houston.

In Pozos, a town in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, relatives mourned two of the dead: brothers Serafin and Roberto Rivera.

On the ill-fated truck, Serafin was returning to his job at a Florida tomato-packing plant after a four-month visit to his home and Roberto was making his first trip to the United States, relatives said. Both had wives and children.

Bodies of the dead were examined by pathologists in Austin. The results were not released by late Thursday, but a Victoria hospital reported it had erroneously listed one victim as 91. He actually was 23.

In Victoria, survivors of the smuggling tragedy gave thanks for life as they recuperated in hospitals or rested at a community center that is under federal guard. Relatives of the survivors were not allowed to visit the center, which was stocked with pizza and other food by the American Red Cross.

The status of the survivors, who could face deportation proceedings, is pending while federal authorities hold them as witnesses to a crime. They reportedly were to be taken to Houston today.

Most of the survivors are Mexican and want to return to Mexico, said Eduardo Ibarrola, Mexico's consul general in Houston, who continued to interview them Thursday.

"They can't believe they're alive," Citizens Medical Center spokeswoman Melissa Purl said of four patients, a young man and three teenage girls.

"I'm so rich to breathe the air," one of the girls told Purl in Spanish.

The girls watched TV but did not understand the international scope of their story, according to Purl.

The Victoria Community Center held 51 survivors, according to Ibarrola.

"The description they're giving is really a nightmare," he said.

The immigrants told him they did not realize the danger of their situation in the truck -- whose refrigeration equipment apparently went unused -- until it was too late.

As the truck rushed toward Victoria, some of the panicked passengers scratched at the insulation inside and waved a bandana through a hole at the rear, he said.

In Schenectady Thursday, Williams was portrayed as an industrious trucker and family man who trucked milk and watermelons between the Northeast and Texas and borrowed $60,000 against his home this year.

But in the charges unveiled in court in Houston, he was listed as one of four people trying to help immigrants evade detection and reach Houston, where many were expected to travel farther to a variety of destinations.

The charges, which could be expanded in an indictment within 30 days, typically carry maximum punishment of 10 years in prison, federal prosecutor DeGabrielle said.

But such a conspiracy can be punished by a life sentence or the death penalty when immigrants die while being smuggled, DeGabrielle said.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft will help decide whether death penalties will be sought against the accused conspirators, he said.

To seek that punishment, prosecutors would have to prove the deaths resulted because of the accused smugglers' "intentional disregard for human life," DeGabrielle said.

Victoria County District Attorney Dexter Eaves said he would consider pursuing a death sentence in state court if the federal authorities did not secure at least a life sentence.

DeGabrielle declined to comment on whether Williams previously has helped smuggle immigrants.

Williams appeared before U.S. Magistrate Mary Milloy and told her he was in the process of hiring a lawyer. She ordered him returned to court this afternoon to talk about his legal representation.

Milloy is expected to schedule a hearing on his detention. Prosecutors are seeking to keep him in jail without the chance to go free on bond before a trial.

The other suspects were described in court documents as men named Abel and Joe and a woman known as Fatima.

Williams told investigators he initially planned to drive the immigrants from Harlingen to Robstown near Corpus Christi for $2,500 from other suspects, according to court records.

Later, other suspects offered an additional $2,500 for Williams to continue to Houston with the immigrants, according to Greenwell's affidavit.

"Abel" and "Joe" loaded immigrants into his truck in a rural area outside Harlingen, Williams told investigators, and he stayed in the cab of the truck, thinking that only 16 people were aboard.

Williams said he pulled into the truck stop outside Victoria in the middle of the night after he checked a rear view mirror and spotted a dangling tail light.

That's when he heard "banging and screaming coming from the trailer of the truck," Greenwell said.

Williams opened the trailer door and saw a number of the immigrants slumped and lying down, the criminal complaint said.

Williams bought 20 bottles of water in the truck stop and handed them to the immigrants, he told authorities.

He said he became afraid, unhooked the trailer and drove north in his truck cab to Houston.

But an account provided by one of the surviving immigrants calls into question some of Williams' story.

Oscar Estrada, who told authorities he was going to pay $1,000 for the trip, said the same man and woman who loaded the truck near Harlingen also opened the truck doors near Victoria.

Williams did not indicate to the agents that any other man other than himself opened the truck.

The pair unhooked the trailer after seeing immigrants' dead bodies, Estrada told authorities.

Williams drove to Houston and went to the Twelve Oaks Medical Center in southwest Houston about 5:15 a.m. Wednesday, Greenwell said. The woman accompanied him to the hospital, then left, according to the agent.

To get to Victoria from Harlingen, Williams had to drive through the Sarita checkpoint in South Texas, where the Border Patrol inspects some vehicles for immigrants, drugs, or other smuggled goods.

Border Patrol Agent Xavier Rios said he is confident the immigrants in Williams' truck were not trying to draw attention to themselves at the checkpoint.

"Believe me, if they were making noise when it came through the checkpoint, it would've been pulled over and searched," Rios said.






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