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