A New York truck driver was charged with alien smuggling on Thursday after he abandoned a trailer full of illegal immigrants, 18 of whom died from the sweltering air inside the sealed container, on a south Texas highway.
The US Justice Department accused Tyrone Williams, 32, of Schenectady, New York, of illegally harboring and transporting aliens and conspiracy in what was one of the worst recent cases of immigrant smuggling deaths.
Prosecutors said Williams could face the death penalty if he were found to have intentionally caused the deaths of his human cargo, for which he was to have been paid US$5,000.
Three other suspects for whom investigators only had the first names -- Joe, Fatima and Abel -- also were charged but were not in custody.
An affidavit released on Thursday says Williams stopped his truck to check a dragging light -- apparently knocked loose by his passengers -- and heard banging from inside. When he opened the back, he said he saw a mass of people, some lying face down, and that "there appeared to be something wrong with them."
He and Fatima, a passenger he picked up in Harlingen, Texas, bought 20 bottles of water and passed them out.
"He stated that he then became afraid, unhooked the trailer, left it at the truck stop and began driving north towards Houston," it says.
At least 62 immigrants, some dead and others severely sick or dying from the heat and stagnant air, were left with the trailer at a truck stop near Victoria, southeast of Houston, after about a four-hours hours' drive.
Seventeen died in or around the airtight trailer and another died later at a hospital, either from suffocation or heat-related injuries.
Williams made a brief appearance before US Magistrate Judge Mary Milloy in Houston federal court. Milloy read the range of punishments he could face, which stretched from 10 years in prison to the death penalty.
The tall and bespectacled man, a legal immigrant from Jamaica, said little except that his wife was looking for a lawyer.
Investigators arrested Williams at a hospital in the Houston suburb of Bellaire on Wednesday morning. He had checked himself in, complaining of nervousness after having an accident.
Williams told investigators he was given US$2,500 to drive the immigrants from Harlingen, 42 km north of the Mexican border crossing, to Robstown, near Corpus Christi, a 188km run.
Someone not identified in the affidavit called on Williams' cell phone and offered him another US$2,500 to drive on to Houston, another 338km.