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`We are on a trailer. We are suffocating.'

Packed into a truck to pass a Texas checkpoint, a group of immigrants soon felt the temperature rising. Nineteen would die, and the driver would face the death penalty. Survivors recount the ordeal.

March 18, 2007|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

Houston — THEY started leaving the stash houses at twilight, six, seven immigrants at a time, crammed into vans, sport utility vehicles, compact cars. The smugglers dropped them in a field by a Fruit of the Loom plant outside Harlingen, Texas, deep in the Rio Grande Valley, not far from the border.

A stand of brush and scrub trees ran across the field. This was where the coyotes told them to hide and wait. In time, a truck would come along to carry them on the next leg of their journey. So they crouched in the thickets and waited, compliant.

It was hot and quite humid on this particular night, May 13, 2003. Some of the people later would recall how uncomfortable it had been in the bushes, sweating through double sets of clothes worn to avoid the added burden of luggage. Still, they were excited. They were in America now, and on the move.

Shortly after 10 p.m., a white Freightliner diesel truck, the legend "Wild Child" painted across the cab door, entered the field. The truck was pulling a 48-foot-long trailer equipped with a refrigeration unit -- a "refrigerator on wheels" was how the driver described it.

Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, a 32-year-old Jamaican immigrant, routinely hauled fresh milk in this trailer from upstate New York to Texas, often returning with a load of watermelons. On this night, he was engaged in something far more lucrative than a typical milk run.

For a fee of $7,500, he had agreed to carry a load of illegal immigrants through a Border Patrol checkpoint about 45 miles up the highway. After he was underway, however, Williams would be redirected by the smugglers to Houston, a six-hour drive.

Now, lights off, the rig followed a smuggler's "rabbit car" to the hiding spot. It made a looping turn, backed toward the brush and stopped. At the rear of the trailer, someone worked a set of levers to open the twin doors. There was a whistle and a command in Spanish: Hurry, hurry. The bushes and trees came alive. Scores of men, a dozen women and one 5-year-old boy, traveling with his father, dashed for the trailer.

Williams remained in the cab, engine running. The smuggler who had recruited him -- a chubby, ne'er-do-well of the border named Abelardo Flores -- told Williams it was best if passengers never got a look at their driver, just in case something went wrong on the road.

Flores positioned himself on the running board beside Williams, giving him the standard instructions: Remain "cool" at the checkpoint. Tell the agent you are running empty. If caught, feign surprise and claim that the people must have sneaked on board, perhaps while you were asleep or inside a truck stop.

One thing Flores did not tell Williams was how many people were being squeezed into his trailer. There were at a minimum 74, and some who boarded put the headcount closer to 100. Still, the loading did not take long, maybe 10 minutes.

The last to board was Maria Elena Castro-Reyes, a Honduran who was headed north to join her husband in Jasper, Ind. He had paid extra on the promise she could ride up front with the driver. So she marched to the passenger side of the cab and climbed up.

She knocked on the door with her fist. Nothing happened. She was not tall enough to look through the window. She heard music coming from inside. She knocked again. She thought the music stopped, but the door did not open. The idling diesel engine revved and the cab lurched, as if the driver had dropped the truck into gear.

Only then did Castro-Reyes move to the back of the trailer. She was appalled by what she saw. The trailer was stuffed with people standing shoulder to shoulder. She refused to board. Two smugglers grabbed her.

"They told me that I could not stay here, that I had to get on," she said later. "They got me by my feet and by my hair, and they threw me in."

With that, the doors were shut and locked from the outside, sealing tight a trailer filled with too many human beings. The dying would begin before they had made it halfway to Houston.

A lesson in immigration

IN the unceasing debate over immigration, those who cross into this country illegally sometimes are criticized for coming in the "easy way," simply slipping over the border without the bother of bureaucratic process. This story is a lesson in just how uneasy, and how unsimple, such crossings can be.

Nineteen people who piled into Tyrone Williams' trailer on that May night would pay for a four-hour ride with their lives. Three and a half years later, Williams would fight for his own survival, charged with 58 federal smuggling counts, 20 of which carried potential death sentences -- one for each of the dead, plus a conspiracy charge.

The trial ran from late October 2006 to mid-January. The witness list was wide-ranging: immigration agents, smugglers, truck-stop clerks, experts in the mechanics of refrigerated trailers, experts in the mechanics of death, first responders, bereaved relatives and, most riveting, survivors of the ride.

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