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Driver due in court after deaths of migrants in sweltering tractor-trailer

SAN ANTONIO — The driver of a tractor-trailer turned deadly transporter for undocumented migrants is due to face criminal charges in a Texas court Monday in what police are calling a human trafficking crime.

Authorities called to the San Antonio Walmart lot Sunday morning where the trailer was parked found eight bodies and 30 undocumented immigrants severely injured from overheating inside. A ninth person later died in hospital, ICE officials said. Thirty-nine people were recovered from the trailer, including one person who was found in a nearby wooded area.

“Checking the video from the store, we found there were a number of vehicles that came in and picked up a lot of the folks that were in that trailer that survived the trip,” San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said.

“The driver and whoever else we find is involved in this will be facing state and federal charges,” he said.

The US Attorney’s Office said the driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., 60, of Clearwater, Florida, was being held in connection with the incident. Prosecutors plan to file a criminal complaint against Bradley in federal court on Monday morning.

“These people were helpless in the hands of their transporters,” said Richard L. Durbin Jr., US attorney for the Western District of Texas.

“All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo.”

More than 100 undocumented immigrants may have been sandwiched in the trailer during the journey, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting Director Thomas Homan said, citing initial interviews with survivors.

‘Irreversible brain damage’

A Walmart employee alerted authorities to the tragedy after a man who was in the trailer asked for water.

The employee brought water for the man, then called police and asked them to conduct a welfare check, McManus said.

“We quickly called a ‘mass casualty incident’ and had about 29 units arrive out there and start transporting people,” San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said.

“With heat strokes or heat injuries, a lot of them are going to have some irreversible brain damage.”

A heatstroke can cause swelling of the brain and other vital organs, possibly causing permanent damage, if a person’s body temperature isn’t quickly lowered, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Officials said the air conditioner in the trailer was not working. And the high temperature in San Antonio on Saturday was 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius).

“Unfortunately, some of them were severely overheated, and that was a refrigerated truck with no refrigeration,” Hood said. “So the inside of the truck was just austere condition that nobody was going to survive in it. So we were very fortunate that they were found.”

Two of the people hospitalized are 15 years old, the fire spokesman said.

Feds join the investigation

Authorities don’t know where the trailer is from or how long it was parked at Walmart, but they are reviewing surveillance video.

Police also searched the area with helicopters after some people ran into the woods.

McManus said it was fortunate that the trailer was discovered and that there were survivors but that such incidents happened all the time.

“You can see that it happens late at night under darkness because they don’t want to be discovered,” he said.

Once the victims undergo treatment, the case will be turned over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the police chief said.

Homan deplored the discovery as the latest major case of human smuggling in the United States.

“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,” Homan said in a statement.

He said in fiscal year 2016, Homeland Security Investigations launched 2,110 human smuggling investigations, which resulted in 1,522 criminal convictions.

During that same year, he said, HSI made 2,734 criminal arrests and 3,007 administrative arrests related to human smuggling operations.

‘Human trafficking is an epidemic’

US Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat who represents parts of San Antonio, called for reform.

“Horrific scene overnight in San Antonio where a human smuggling attempt turned deadly,” Doggett tweeted. “Prosecute smugglers, pray for survivors and the victims’ families, stop the hysteria, reform our broken immigration system.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the deaths were “a heartbreaking tragedy.”

“Human trafficking is an epidemic that Texas is working to eradicate,” the governor said, highlighting a bill he signed in May that provides information to the trucking industry about how to spot and report signs of human trafficking.