James Matthew Bradley Jr., a tractor-trailer driver, could face up to life imprisonment or even the death penalty in connection with the deaths of 10 immigrants found in the back of a trailer in San Antonio early Sunday morning.
That's according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court, highlighting Bradley's alleged web of deceit, and details how a Mexican drug cartel put the deadly plan into motion.
The 60-year-old trucker from Clearwater, Florida, gave federal authorities his version of the events after the gruesome discovery.
But the feds are not buying his story. Bradley, an independent driver, was hired by Pyle Transportation of Schaller, Iowa, to deliver an empty trailer to a buyer in Brownsville, Texas.
Bradley, however, also told investigators that he had no timetable, and drove 200 miles out of his way to Laredo to have the tractor-trailer washed and detailed.
Rather than drive to Brownsville to deliver the empty trailer, Bradley ended up with a trailer full of undocumented immigrants in a Wal-Mart parking lot in San Antonio Sunday morning.
When arrested, Bradley claimed he was unaware that 70 to possibly several hundred individuals were inside the trailer. When he opened the trailer doors at Wal-Mart, he said he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people and knocked to the ground.”
He said he “noticed bodies just lying on the (trailer) floor like meat,” with at least one of them dead.
He also said “he knew the trailer refrigeration system didn’t work and that the four vent holes were probably clogged up.”
The Iowa company that hired Bradley, expected him to deliver the trailer to a Brownsville buyer last Friday.
“He (Bradley) knew where he was to deliver the trailer in Brownsville,” Brian Pyle, the co-owner of Pyle Transportation, said when reached for comment. “And he was to deliver the trailer by Friday last week….(But) Friday, late afternoon, we tried to call him and got no answer.”
Pyle said most of Bradley's story doesn't wash.
"You don't need to go through Laredo to go to Brownsville," Pyle said. "You definitely don't need to head back to San Antonio."
Pyle said the trailer’s cooling unit likely would be unable to keep passengers cool.
"The trailer was sold as a dry box," Pyle said. “Bradley knew that the refrigeration wasn't necessarily even working because it didn't need to work."
While Bradley was allegedly a key U.S. player in the smuggling operation, the federal complaint indicates that the Zeta drug cartel played a prominent role on the Mexican side of the border.
One of the undocumented immigrants told investigators that a smuggler said those linked to the Zeta Cartel charged up to $700 for protection and crossing fees into the United States. And thousands more charged on the U.S. side.
Robert Almonte, former U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas, said drug cartels are increasingly drawn to human smuggling. As a result, undocumented immigrants often face unsafe travel.
"They (cartels) don't see these people as human beings,” Almonte said, “They don't see them as victims. They see them as a business, as a commodity, there's no difference between smuggling drugs and smuggling human beings."
Almonte said drug traffickers believe human smuggling is riskier than drug smuggling. That’s because in a drug bust traffickers may lose both their drug load and money.
Cartels often get paid up front when involved in human smuggling, Almonte said. As a result, they are not concerned if the individuals arrive safely.
“They (cartels) have organizations set up,” Almonte said. “They have a structure set up to traffic human beings into and around the United States.”
The criminal complaint details how several dozen immigrants were smuggled across the border, then forced into nearby stash houses for up to two weeks.
Seventy or more immigrants, possibly more than a hundred, were packed into the trailer prior to it leaving Laredo for San Antonio.
“During the first hour of transportation,” the complaint read, “everyone seemed to be OK.”
“Later, people started having trouble breathing and some started to pass out. People began hitting the trailer walls and making noise to get the driver’s attention.”
But the driver “never stopped,” the complaint read.
“People had a hole in the trailer wall to provide some ventilation and they started taking turns breathing from the hole.”
However, by the time the trailer arrived in San Antonio, it had heated up, as temperatures soared to more than 100 degrees. When opened, eight individuals were found dead by investigators. Another 30 were taken to the hospital, with two more who died later.