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5 Killed, 2 Injured in Wreck Near Border

The small car carrying eight people was reportedly speeding. Police say occupants may have been smuggled immigrants.

June 11, 2003|Li Fellers | Times Staff Writer

Five men died and two were critically injured Tuesday when they were ejected from a car speeding down a stretch of Interstate 8 in Imperial County, authorities said.

The compact sports coupe was loaded with eight people and traveling more than 100 mph when it rolled over, according to authorities.

The driver, Brigido Cruz, a 35-year-old Mexican national, was arrested on suspicion of homicide because investigators believe he was driving the car in a reckless manner.

California Highway Patrol officials said Cruz may have been operating as a coyote, a smuggler who transports illegal immigrants across the border for a fee. They believe he had been hired by the passengers in the vehicle.

"The preliminary information indicates that this was possibly undocumented immigrants in the area trying to make it to a safe location," said Sgt. Michael Torres of the California Highway Patrol in El Centro.

The stretch of Interstate 8 where the accident occurred is about 10 miles from the border and is the primary artery from San Diego to Yuma, Ariz.

Torres said the highway is frequently used for transporting illegal immigrants.

About 6:30 a.m., the CHP received a call reporting a single-vehicle rollover in the eastbound lanes of the interstate, two miles east of Ocotillo. The location is about 90 minutes east of San Diego.

According to investigators, the car was passing a large semitruck in the right lane when the driver lost control and swerved.

The car rolled several times, ejecting all the passengers and landing off the freeway.

Four victims died at the scene; a fifth died later at a hospital. Two surviving victims are in critical condition at a San Diego-area hospital.The Imperial County coroner's office was still trying to identify the victims Tuesday evening, and the names were not released, pending notification of the relatives.

Deputy Coroner Jordan Joaquin said all the victims were male Latinos in their 20s.

Two victims carried Mexican identity cards, and the car had California license plates, Joaquin said.

Investigators still don't know why the driver lost control of the car or why it rolled over, Torres said.

The CHP does not know why the vehicle was traveling so fast, Torres said.

He said the CHP was not engaged in a pursuit of the vehicle, adding that the initial investigation showed that the Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and the Imperial County Sheriff's Department weren't either.

It's also unclear why the car, with only two seats and a hatchback, was carrying eight people -- far beyond its capacity.

"It's not unusual, not out here. More than likely, it was the transportation of illegal immigrants," Torres said.

Such accidents involving packed cars along the border are not uncommon, officials said.

"Once a month, there is some activity or wreck," said Clyde Carson, a patient relations representative at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, which received one of the victims.

"Border hospitals have this problem everywhere," Carson said.

Torres added, "You sit here and you look at it. They're looking for a better a life and they go through a lot and take a lot of risk to come here. It breaks your heart."

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