April 20–A Kentucky trucker who transported dozens of undocumented immigrants from Laredo to San Antonio in a sweltering tractor-trailer, resulting in the deaths of 10 people, was sentenced Friday to two concurrent life sentences without parole.
The judge equated the actions of the driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., to torture.
“My heart goes out to the families who have lost loved ones,” Bradley, 61, of Louisville, said in a jailhouse video statement his public defenders played in court. “If I could turn back the hands of time, I would. … There is not a day or night that goes by that I don’t relive that scene. … I am so sorry it happened.”
Bradley pleaded guilty in October to two counts of conspiracy to transport undocumented immigrants for profit, resulting in death.
Last July, Bradley was found with 39 immigrants in his tractor trailer in the parking lot of a Walmart on San Antonio’s South Side. Eight were already dead when police arrived, two more died later at area hospitals and the rest were hospitalized for treatment of heat-related injuries, some so severe that they had to continue getting kidney dialysis months later.
Federal prosecutors played a portion of video taken by the body camera of San Antonio police officer Hector Ybarra, and it showed bodies on top of one another. Some were lifeless; others barely moved and moaned and groaned. One survivor stumbled as he tried to help his fellow immigrants — among them his brother who died.
Ybarra, one of the first to respond, and a federal agent, testified Friday about the grisly scene, where urine, feces, vomit and blood flowed or stained the inside of the trailer. The stench was overwhelming.
Ybarra said he offered water to the people inside, but could hear only moans and groans and — like he was trained — poured water on the back of survivors’ necks to help cool them down. He checked for pulses as he went farther into the trailer.
“As I got to the (front) of the trailer, it was increasingly hot and humid,” Ybarra testified. “Along with all my gear, all (the) urine and feces, and vomit, I ended up throwing up myself, twice.”
Ybarra had to step out of the trailer to compose himself.
Survivors told investigators there may have been more than 70 migrants and up to 200 in the trailer at one point, though many left in passenger vehicles that followed the trailer into the Walmart parking lot after Bradley called the smugglers.
Homeland Security Investigations special agent Cory Downs choked back tears as he recounted what he saw and learned during the investigation. He said that the immigrants were told that, as soon as Bradley’s tractor-trailer left Laredo, the cooling system in the trailer would turn on. But it never did because it was broken, something Bradley knew, and those inside realized by the time the truck passed a checkpoint just north of Laredo.
Officials later confirmed that an X-ray machine at the Border Patrol checkpoint was not working the night Bradley’s rig went through with its human cargo.
“They tried to cut holes (in the trailer) with what they had, keys, a knife, a Leatherman,” Downs testified. “Someone tried to claw their way through (the trailer’s wall). There was blood everywhere. … You could tell they just shredded their hands, or whatever they used.”
At one point, the migrants trapped inside began hallucinating “that they thought they saw somene with an oxygen mask and started dogpiling trying to get access to the air holes.”
Bradley’s lawyers argued that his lack of education left him vulnerable and that he was duped by “professional smugglers.” Bradley dropped out of school by sixth grade and learned to drive a commercial truck from truckers while he hitchhiked around the country, the defense lawyers said.
In his early 20s, he paid a $54 fee to get his license but was never required to take a test for it, one of his lawyers told Senior U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra.
But prosecutor Christina Playton countered that Bradley knew what he was doing because rather than call 911, he instead called an acquaintance and one of the smugglers in the chain. Court records show he was paid $5,600 by the smugglers.
Playton also played a videotape of investigators talking to Bradley, who claimed he did not know he was hauling immigrants.
“Why would you get in a refrigerated trailer?” Bradley said. “Why would anybody put them in there? It’s airtight.”
Playton said despite his IQ of 69, Bradley chose to become a willing participant.
“It was death, but not just death; it was extreme and inhumane suffering,” Playton said.
Ezra rejected a request by Bradley’s assistant public defenders, Alfredo Villarreal and Kim Stevens, for a sentence of 63 months. The judge found the appropriate recommended guideline range was 360 months to life in prison on each count.
The judge said ranchers don’t even treat their livestock as horribly as Bradley did, and that his human cargo suffered “in unspeakable heat … that it could only be equated with torture.”
“The defendant was fully aware of the conditions in that trailer,” Ezra said. “He knew there was no cooling in trailer, and he provided them with no water. The result was predictable and tragic.”
U.S. Attorney John Bash said afterward that the sentence should serve as a warning to other smugglers and to certain U.S. employers.
“I’m talking about businesses knowingly hiring hundreds of illegal aliens, you are creating the economic incentive to subject people to exploitation and death,” Bash said. “That needs to stop and were going to be looking at it very closely to figure out how we can eliminate the incentive to bring illegal aliens, to smuggle them here in these conditions, by going after employers who are knowingly, and in violation of federal law, hiring unlawful aliens.”
Shane Folden, special agent of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio, said that of the surviving immigrants, 15 were deported and 14 remain in deportation proceedings.
Besides Bradley, Pedro Silva Segura, 47, an undocumented immigrant who lived in Laredo, pleaded guilty in the case. He is set for sentencing in June. No one else has been charged.
Guillermo Contreras is a San Antonio Express-News staff writer. Read more of his stories here. — firstname.lastname@example.org — @gmaninfedland
(c)2018 the Houston Chronicle
Visit the Houston Chronicle at www.chron.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.