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Truck Driver Admits Role in Smuggling

Tyrone Williams is charged in federal court and could face state counts. Officials say masterminds of the operation are at large.

May 16, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

VICTORIA, Texas — A truck driver whose rig allegedly carried 18 illegal immigrants to their deaths has admitted his role in the case, according to government documents made public Thursday, but officials said the masterminds of the smuggling operation remained at large.

The driver, Tyrone Williams, 32, of Schenectady, N.Y., appeared before a U.S. magistrate in Houston and was charged with transporting and harboring illegal immigrants and conspiracy to transport immigrants. Because of the deaths, the charges could carry a life prison term if Williams is convicted, said Victoria County Dist. Atty. M.P. "Dexter" Eaves.

Once the federal case is resolved, state officials expect to charge Williams with murder, he added.

"I'm not belittling what he did. He is fully responsible and will be held accountable," Eaves said. "But my ultimate goal is to make sure that we get not only that driver, but everybody up the food chain. The important thing is that we make sure we get justice for these people -- not 'illegal aliens' or 'immigrants' -- these people."

Williams has not entered a plea and does not yet have an attorney.

The charges came as officials continued to investigate the incident, help survivors and attempt to identify the dead. After speculating Wednesday that there might have been as many as 140 people crammed into the trailer, authorities said Thursday that the correct figure was probably fewer than 100. Many of the migrants spilled from the truck when its doors were first opened early Wednesday and fled into the woods.

Seventeen of those in the tractor-trailer were from Honduras, including at least one of the dead. And several investigators said they suspect that the organizers of the smuggling scheme -- including two suspects listed in an affidavit only as "Joe" and "Abel" -- may also have been from Honduras.

"We don't know enough yet," said Lasteria Pineda, a representative of the Honduran Consulate who came to Victoria, a city of 60,000 in South Texas.

Williams, a commercial truck driver who frequently picks up loads of produce near the border, told federal investigators that he was paid $5,000 to drive the immigrants from the Mexican border to Houston, according to an affidavit compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and filed in U.S. District Court in Houston.

According to the affidavit, Williams was seeking work Tuesday when he met Joe and Abel in Harlingen, a frequent stopping point in southwestern Texas for migrants who cross the border illegally in search of jobs. Williams told investigators he waited in his cab while the group climbed aboard in the dark. The immigrants paid the smugglers a minimum of $1,000 each for the trip, officials said.

"Williams stated that he could hear the noise from the people getting into the trailer and he could feel the truck rocking back and forth as they loaded," the affidavit said.

Authorities described a harrowing and confusing scene inside the trailer.

The immigrants were probably inside for more than five hours, said Eduardo Ibarrola, Mexico's consul general in Houston. They had no water, food or light during their journey, temperatures soared above 100 degrees and there was not enough air to keep everyone alive, he said. The migrants were so desperate that they tore through the truck's insulation and metal walls to form breathing holes.

"The holes were not enough. They thought they were dying," Ibarrola said of the survivors, who range in age from 14 to about 35. "It was a desperate situation. These [smugglers] did not take care of their lives -- or their integrity."

As the truck approached Victoria, Williams glanced in a side mirror and noticed one of his taillights was dangling. Officials believe the migrants kicked out the light and thrust a bandana outside to signal motorists.

Williams, accompanied by a woman named Fatima, whom he met while traveling, pulled into the Speedy No. 46 truck stop off U.S. 77. When he stopped, the migrants banged on the walls and screamed, the affidavit said.

Williams opened the back doors and was stunned to find scores of people, he told investigators, since he was told he would be transporting only 16. Sixty-eight people from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, including eight found Thursday, are accounted for.

A woman inside began screaming, "El nino! El nino!" in an apparent reference to a 5-year-old boy who was among the dead, Williams told investigators. He panicked, unhitched the trailer and took off in the tractor for Houston, according to the affidavit.

Williams was arrested after stopping at a hospital in the Houston suburb of Bellaire, where nurses reported he was "extremely anxious and nervous." It was unclear Thursday why he had gone to the hospital.

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