A truck driver suspected in a smuggling operation that left 10 people dead has been charged in Texas with illegally transporting immigrants, according to a court document released Monday.
The 60-year-old man, identified as James Bradley Jr. from Florida, could face life in prison or the death penalty for the charges, said authorities.
Bradley was arrested in San Antonio on Sunday after police recovered eight bodies in the back of his broiling tractor trailer in a Walmart parking lot. Two more victims later died and the others were hospitalized, many in critical condition, after suffering from heatstroke and exhaustion. Authorities say they fear the death toll could rise.
According to the criminal complaint filed against Bradley, he told federal investigators that he was driving the truck from Schaller, Iowa to Brownsville, Texas and was not aware that anyone was inside until he stopped in San Antonio.
Bradley described opening the doors "and was surprised when he was run over by 'Spanish' people and knocked to the ground," according to the court document. Investigators say Bradley called his wife, but not the emergency 911 number, even though he knew that there were fatalities. The complaint said Bradley's wife did not answer the phone when he called her.
Witness accounts indicate that at least 100 smuggled immigrants were in the back of the truck at some point during the journey.
"All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo," Richard Durbin, Jr., U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said in a statement. "These people were helpless in the hands of their transporters. Imagine their suffering, trapped in a stifling trailer."
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Thomas Homan said in a statement, "By any standard, the horrific crime uncovered last night ranks as a stark reminder of why human smuggling networks must be pursued, caught and punished."
He also said that ICE's Homeland Security Investigations division "works year-round to identify, dismantle, and disrupt the transnational criminal networks that smuggle people into and throughout the United States."
Surveillance footage recorded vehicles pulling up to the truck Saturday night, taking a few people at a time from the trailer, then closing the truck and driving away.
The truck's human cargo was discovered after someone from the trailer asked a Walmart employee for water. That request led to a police check, and the discovery of the human cargo, including two school-aged children, along with those who died - all adult men.
Mexico's foreign ministry said Monday that preliminary information indicated that 25 Mexicans were among those in the trailer, including four who died and 21 others who were hospitalized. The statement also said the Mexican consulate in San Antonio will continue working with local and state authorities to help identify the nationality of all the victims.
An earlier statement from the Mexican government said it has called on authorities to conduct an exhaustive investigation.
“It doesn’t happen every day but it does happen every few years," Nestor Rodriguez , a sociology professor at the University of Texas-Austin, told VOA. "It’s almost a common problem," he said, adding that financial and security concerns often lead people from Mexico and Central American countries to pursue risky journeys to the United States, sometimes leading to such tragedies.