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Alleged Ringleader Pleads Guilty in Fatal Smuggling Operation

Honduran is expected to get her sentence reduced for offering information on scheme that killed 19.

June 15, 2004|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — A Honduran national pleaded guilty Monday for her role in a smuggling operation in which 19 illegal immigrants died last year after suffocating in the back of a tractor-trailer. She is expected to become a witness for the prosecution in exchange for a reduced prison term.

Karla Patricia Chavez, 26, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to transport and harbor undocumented immigrants, leading to their deaths. Federal officials said the remaining charges against her, contained in a grand jury indictment, would be dropped in exchange for her testimony.

Chavez not only will testify against codefendants charged in the same incident but also will offer information about smuggling efforts that "may not even be connected to this particular case," said her attorney, Jeffrey Sasser.

"The conspiracy count, that was the main count, so they kind of got what they wanted," he said. "And we are going to assist the government in any further prosecutions. The agreement is that we will cooperate fully."

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore is scheduled to sentence Chavez, the operation's alleged ringleader, on Sept. 13. Chavez still could face a maximum punishment of life in prison without possibility of parole and a $250,000 fine. But Sasser said prosecutors are expected to argue for a lighter sentence. The better the information she gives to investigators, the more prosecutors will work to reduce her punishment, officials said.

"It is not necessarily the amount of information, it is the quality of information that is the driving force," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel C. Rodriguez. "It has got to be information that provides substantial assistance in the prosecution of others."

Last spring, more than 70 people from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala came across the U.S. border in small groups and stayed temporarily at a safe house in southwestern Texas. In May, they were loaded into the back of a tractor-trailer -- by Chavez, who also collected smuggling fees of at least $1,000 per person, authorities believe -- for transport to Houston.

The tractor-trailer was locked and unventilated. As temperatures inside reached 173 degrees, authorities said, people scratched through the truck's insulated walls in a desperate attempt to breathe.

Midway through the trip, officials said, driver Tyrone Williams, 33, pulled into a truck stop near Victoria, Texas, panicked and fled when he saw that the immigrants were dead or suffering.

Some survivors arrived at hospitals with body temperatures of 105 degrees and higher, after a 20-minute ride in an air-conditioned ambulance. Sheriff's deputies found 17 people, including a 5-year-old boy, dead in the truck or on the ground nearby. Two others died at area hospitals a short time later.

Fourteen people have been charged in connection with the incident. It remains unclear how many people Chavez will testify against. But officials said the list includes Williams, the only defendant for whom the federal government is seeking the death penalty.

Chavez, who maintains homes in Honduras and Harlingen, Texas, pleaded guilty after it became clear that the government had a very strong case against her, officials said. She provided a videotaped confession about her role in the incident to federal investigators -- telling them, among other things, that she had coordinated the location and time when the immigrants would be loaded into the tractor-trailer.

Sasser, her attorney, said he questioned the government's contention that Chavez was the leader of the smuggling ring; but he said that "when all was said and done, they were going to be able to prove" their case.

"Her role was more than just putting people on the trailer," Sasser said. "We take responsibility for that."

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