Prosecutors filed a felony immigrant smuggling charge against a 60-year-old truck driver today (July 24). The charge comes one day after San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) officers found the driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., near an unventilated tractor trailer filled with dozens of undocumented immigrants—eight of whom were found dead, and two of whom died later in an area hospital.
The San Antonio Express-News reported today that Bradley appeared in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio and was charged with one count of transporting undocumented immigrants. According to a statement released by the U.S. States Attorney’s Office for the district, "the offense is punishable by life imprisonment or death, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release."
The Express-News, which published the complaint and statement in full, explains that the death penalty and life imprisonment options apply to smuggling cases in which trafficked immigrants die during transport. Bradley remains in federal custody without bail until court hearings resume on Thursday (July 27).
According to the complaint, an SAPD officer first encountered Bradley and the tractor trailer near a San Antonio Walmart yesterday (July 23). The officer responded to a 911 call about a suspicious vehicle and spoke to a Walmart employee on the scene who mentioned multiple people who needed aid. The officer went to the tractor trailer, where several people were standing or lying down. Bradley told the officer that he did not know about the people inside until he stopped to urinate and heard movement in the trailer’s rear compartment. He also told the officer that he tried to administer aid to the occupants, after which the officer detained Bradley and found that some of the trailer’s occupants had already died.
The Department of Homeland Security dispatched officers from its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) branch, which the complaint says confirmed with the SAPD that 30-40 undocumented immigrants (not including the eight found dead) were taken to local hospitals. The complaint says that two of the immigrants, quoted under anonymity, told HSI officers that they were packed into the trailer during various legs of an immigrant smuggling operation across the U.S.-Mexico border. Both estimated that at least 70 immigrants were inside the trailer when they entered, while yet another estimated 180-200 occupants. During that time, people had trouble breathing in the unventilated trailer, but they said the driver would not stop despite their attempts to get his attention. One of the interviewed immigrants mentioned that the doors opened at one point and Black SUVs picked up many of the occupants. But the interviewee could not conclusively identify Bradley as the driver or the person opening the trailer.
Bradley reiterated his initial comments to the SAPD officer when he spoke to to HSI agents. He said that he was traveling from Iowa to Brownsville, Texas, to deliver the tractor trailer to an unknown owner under his boss’ orders. He went to San Antonio after getting the vehicle washed and detailed in Laredo, and found the human occupants only during the aforementioned stop. Bradley adding that he contacted his wife, but not 911, and knew that the "trailer refrigeration system didn’t work."
As for the truck’s source, the Express-News reports that the trailer featured a logo for Pyle Transportation, whose company namesake Mike Pyle and colleague Tom Colton told the outlet that they did not authorize Bradley to haul anything in Texas.
In addition to the eight found dead, the complaint notes that two occupants died at a local hospital. The SAPD told the Express-News that it suspected the immigrants died from heat- and asphyxiation-related causes. Reyna Torres of San Antonio’s Mexican Consul General and Tekandi Paniagua of Guatemala’s foreign ministry confirmed to The Associated Press/ABC News that nationals of their countries were among those found in the trailer. Neither would comment on the immigration status of the survivors.
"To maximize their criminal profits, these human smugglers crammed more than 100 people into a tractor trailer in the stifling Texas summer heat resulting in ten dead and 29 others hospitalized," acting ICE director Thomas Homan said in the statement accompanying the complaint. "Human smugglers have repeatedly demonstrated that they have absolutely no regard for human life. Our ICE agents and officers, working closely with our law enforcement partners, will pursue these smugglers and bring them to justice."
Bradley’s trial occurs against the backdrop of Texas’ adoption of new policies for policing immigrants. The state senate passed Senate Bill 4 (SB4) in May, which outlaws sanctuary cities. Local immigration reform organization Raices criticized the SAPD and state and national anti-immigrant policies in a statement to local channel KSAT 12:
Instead of offering a humanitarian response, SAPD called an enforcement agency with its own track record of causing migrant deaths and criminalizing, detaining and deporting vulnerable populations. We resist all attempts to dehumanize the survivors of this tragedy.