Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Immigrants' journey took a deadly turn

When a truck driver agreed to smuggle them past a Texas checkpoint, he had no idea he would usher 19 to their deaths.
By Peter H. King
Times Staff Writer

March 18, 2007

Houston — THEY started leaving the stash houses at twilight, six, seven immigrants at a time, crammed into vans, sport utility vehicles, compact cars. The smugglers dropped them in a field by a Fruit of the Loom plant outside Harlingen, Texas, deep in the Rio Grande Valley, not far from the border.

A stand of brush and scrub trees ran across the field. This was where the coyotes told them to hide and wait. In time, a truck would come along to carry them on the next leg of their journey. So they crouched in the thickets and waited, compliant.

It was hot and quite humid on this particular night, May 13, 2003. Some of the people later would recall how uncomfortable it had been in the bushes, sweating through double sets of clothes worn to avoid the added burden of luggage. Still, they were excited. They were in America now, and on the move.

Shortly after 10 p.m., a white Freightliner diesel truck, the legend "Wild Child" painted across the cab door, entered the field. The truck was pulling a 48-foot-long trailer equipped with a refrigeration unit — a "refrigerator on wheels" was how the driver described it.

Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, a 32-year-old Jamaican immigrant, routinely hauled fresh milk in this trailer from upstate New York to Texas, often returning with a load of watermelons. On this night, he was engaged in something far more lucrative than a typical milk run.

For a fee of $7,500, he had agreed to carry a load of illegal immigrants through a Border Patrol checkpoint about 45 miles up the highway. After he was underway, however, Williams would be redirected by the smugglers to Houston, a six-hour drive.

Now, lights off, the rig followed a smuggler's "rabbit car" to the hiding spot. It made a looping turn, backed toward the brush and stopped. At the rear of the trailer, someone worked a set of levers to open the twin doors. There was a whistle and a command in Spanish: Hurry, hurry. The bushes and trees came alive. Scores of men, a dozen women and one 5-year-old boy, traveling with his father, dashed for the trailer.

Williams remained in the cab, engine running. The smuggler who had recruited him — a chubby, ne'er-do-well of the border named Abelardo Flores — told Williams it was best if passengers never got a look at their driver, just in case something went wrong on the road.

Flores positioned himself on the running board beside Williams, giving him the standard instructions: Remain "cool" at the checkpoint. Tell the agent you are running empty. If caught, feign surprise and claim that the people must have sneaked on board, perhaps while you were asleep or inside a truck stop.

One thing Flores did not tell Williams was how many people were being squeezed into his trailer. There were at a minimum 74, and some who boarded put the headcount closer to 100. Still, the loading did not take long, maybe 10 minutes.

The last to board was Maria Elena Castro-Reyes, a Honduran who was headed north to join her husband in Jasper, Ind. He had paid extra on the promise she could ride up front with the driver. So she marched to the passenger side of the cab and climbed up.

She knocked on the door with her fist. Nothing happened. She was not tall enough to look through the window. She heard music coming from inside. She knocked again. She thought the music stopped, but the door did not open. The idling diesel engine revved and the cab lurched, as if the driver had dropped the truck into gear.

Only then did Castro-Reyes move to the back of the trailer. She was appalled by what she saw. The trailer was stuffed with people standing shoulder to shoulder. She refused to board. Two smugglers grabbed her.

"They told me that I could not stay here, that I had to get on," she said later. "They got me by my feet and by my hair, and they threw me in."

With that, the doors were shut and locked from the outside, sealing tight a trailer filled with too many human beings. The dying would begin before they had made it halfway to Houston.

A lesson in immigration

IN the unceasing debate over immigration, those who cross into this country illegally sometimes are criticized for coming in the "easy way," simply slipping over the border without the bother of bureaucratic process. This story is a lesson in just how uneasy, and how unsimple, such crossings can be.

Nineteen people who piled into Tyrone Williams' trailer on that May night would pay for a four-hour ride with their lives. Three and a half years later, Williams would fight for his own survival, charged with 58 federal smuggling counts, 20 of which carried potential death sentences — one for each of the dead, plus a conspiracy charge.

The trial ran from late October 2006 to mid-January. The witness list was wide-ranging: immigration agents, smugglers, truck-stop clerks, experts in the mechanics of refrigerated trailers, experts in the mechanics of death, first responders, bereaved relatives and, most riveting, survivors of the ride.

From this testimony a narrative would emerge. Though incomplete and inconsistent in many details, the story these witnesses cobbled together in court was overwhelmingly powerful and painful to absorb. It also was instructive in the dark arts of human trafficking.

At first, conditions inside the trailer had seemed "normal," many of the survivors would testify without any apparent sense of irony. Wrapped in almost perfect darkness, they could see nothing. What they experienced were sensations and sounds — the slight swaying of the trailer as it left the field and rolled onto the roadway, the jostling of shoulders and hips, sticky sweat and, within minutes, rising heat.

According to a mathematical model prepared for trial, it took only 10 minutes to reach 100% humidity inside the insulated trailer. Within 35 minutes, the heat surpassed the normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees and continued to climb. This was a critical tipping point. Now body heat generated by the passengers no longer could escape into the trailer's airspace.

"At that point," Tayfun Tezduyar of Rice University testified, "the air doesn't take the beating. It's the human body that takes the beating."

Williams' refrigerator on wheels had become a convection oven, with the passengers' own bodies acting as individual furnaces. Sweat ceased to act as a cooling agent. Instead, Tezduyar said, the passengers were "merely dripping." Moreover, with each breath they drew, they were cutting into a finite supply of oxygen, replacing it with the poisonous carbon dioxide they exhaled.

Jose Juan Roldan-Castro, a 26-year-old from Puebla, Mexico, who was headed to Iowa to join his brother, was the first to act. He swam through the mass of people until he reached the doors. He ran his hands along the edges, looking for tears in the insulating fabric. He gained a purchase and pulled at the foamlike material, tearing away a piece to expose the bracket of a taillight. He punched at the bracket with his bare hands.

"You don't care about pain," he recalled in court.

He managed to knock out the light, leaving it to dangle on a cord. This created a hole about the size of a fist. Not much air came through, but by pressing his face close, Roldan-Castro received a bit of relief. Passengers became angry with him. Somebody struck him.

"We are going to be discovered!" they shouted.

"Don't you understand?" he countered. "We are in danger here. No air is coming in. We could die."

Later, others would break out a second light, and throughout the rest of the ride jostle desperately for access to the improvised air holes.

The commotion caused by Roldan-Castro unnerved Matias Rafael Flores, a 24-year-old Honduran. He began to shout and bang against the trailer walls with a long metal cargo brace. Others on board urged him to quiet down. He ignored them.

"At no point," Flores would testify, "did I ever stop making noise."

His mother, not trusting smugglers, had slipped a Nokia cellphone into her son's pocket. She had programmed it to dial 911. About half an hour into the ride, he made his first attempt to call out. He failed to raise a signal.

By now, the passengers were stripping off blouses and shirts. Their bodies poured sweat, and the more they perspired, the more they became dehydrated. One man squeezed sweat from his shirt and tried to drink it. The 5-year-old boy was wailing.

"I was right next to him and his father," Flores said. "He was asking his father to help him take off his clothes because he was very hot."

Castro-Reyes managed to move to the boy. Her own 3-year-old son, deemed too young for the truck trip, was to be transported to Houston later in a smuggler's car. The 28-year-old mother fanned the child, cradled him, tried to calm him. She did not know his name.

"Don't cry," she told the boy. "We'll be there soon."

The boy's father, a Mexico City taxi driver, had split with his wife and was coming to live with his sister. Back home, the boy had talked excitedly about wanting to learn English and become a doctor. His name was Marco Antonio Villasenor. But to the people on the trailer he was simply "el ni–o," the little boy.

Most of the riders had been thrown together as strangers, coming from across Mexico and Central America. Castro-Reyes and her son had traveled north from Honduras in a small party of young women and men. Each had paid $3,000 for a coyote to escort them to the border. They walked and rode buses for more than a week. At one point in Mexico, federales boarded the bus to detain them. Castro-Reyes slipped them a bribe, and the immigrant party continued on.

At the border, the Hondurans made contact with a second smuggler, who was to shepherd them into the United States and on to Houston, a hub city in the illegal immigrant trade. As do so many others headed north, they crossed the Rio Grande on inner tubes. Some did not know how to swim.

Many of the people in the trailer had work waiting for them in the United States. Some were headed to Iowa meat-packing towns or to jobs in Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, California.

Doris Sulema Argueta, a 34-year-old Honduran, was bound for Miami, hoping to give her three children a better education. She had tried without success to obtain a visa before eventually making contact with a smuggler. Faviola Gonzalez-Buendia, an 18-year-old from Durango, Mexico, simply was going to see her grandmother in Houston. She giggled on the stand as she recounted her float across the Rio Grande.

Lorenzo Otero-Marquez, a 25-year-old construction worker, had gone south to see a doctor and visit his mother in Mexico, only to find himself stuck below a border more heavily secured than when he had last crossed. He paid a smuggler $1,850 to float him across the Rio Grande on a tube and guarantee him a ride in the cabin of a truck. Duped, he rode in the back with the rest.

They weren't, of course, all saints. When the case came to trial, one young man would be escorted to the witness stand by a Tennessee jailer. Two of those who died had traces of cocaine in their systems. And all of those who testified would admit, somewhat ruefully, that they had come into America as ilegales.

Nonetheless, it was in the main a typical load of immigrants that Williams pulled up U.S. Highway 77, animated with all the dreams that always have drawn immigrants to America. First, though, they would need to make it through the Border Patrol checkpoint.

Located just south of the town of Sarita, it serves the same function for the Rio Grande Valley as the San Clemente checkpoint does for Southern California: a final backstop on a main north-south highway to snag illegal immigrants who have crossed the border.

The smugglers had told their charges to remain as quiet as possible when the truck stopped. It reached the checkpoint at 11:26 p.m. As Williams fell in line, the riders who were jammed against the doors, trying to suck air through the hole, ducked as best they could so as not to be seen.

Agent Archie Buchanan, dressed in coveralls and cap, climbed up beside Williams and asked the driver where he was headed.

"Houston," Williams replied.

What was he hauling?

"I'm empty."

The agent aimed a flashlight into the sleeper compartment at the back of the cab. If Matias Flores was banging away with his load brace, as he later insisted, Buchanan did not hear it. He examined Williams' passport and wanted to know about the young woman riding beside him.

Her name was Fatima Holloway. Williams, married with his third child on the way, had met the 28-year-old a few days earlier through a mutual friend in Cleveland, a fellow Jamaican immigrant who dealt in drugs. Holloway was being paid $1,000 by this man to carry cash to a narcotics transaction in Houston.

"She's my girlfriend," Williams told the Border Patrol agent.

Satisfied, Buchanan stepped down. He had his head down, making a note on his clipboard, as the truck rolled away. The agent did not appear to notice the dangling taillight. The inspection had taken 21 seconds.

"He told me he didn't have anything in the trailer," Buchanan explained in court. "And he didn't have the refrigeration unit on. And so the story made sense to me."

There would be other missed opportunities. Just past the checkpoint, Scott Reuter, a 27-year-old waiter driving home from work, fell in behind Williams' 18-wheeler. He noticed a hand sticking out a hole in the trailer, waving what appeared to be a rag.

He tried to call 911, but his cellphone battery was dead. He trailed the truck for 10 miles before reaching his exit. From a convenience store pay phone, he reached a Kingsville police dispatcher. After a brief conversation, the dispatcher told Reuter that the truck had passed beyond the department's jurisdiction, and with a cheerful "bye!" hung up.

Not long after that, at 11:57 a.m., half an hour beyond the checkpoint, Matias Flores was able to connect on his cellphone with another law enforcement dispatcher. A recording of the call captured two people speaking over one another in different languages.

"Hello," Flores shouted in Spanish. "We are on a trailer. We are suffocating."

"What's the problem?" the dispatcher responded laconically, in English. "What's the address?"

"We are suffocating. Please."

"OK, I can't … "

"Help me."

"Sir," she demanded, "what's the address?"

Again, a rush of Spanish: "We come. We come illegal. We are coming by … "

There was a long pause. Now a male dispatcher could be heard, speaking in Spanish:

"Hi, can I help you? What do you need?"

There was no response. The call had been dropped.

In the background as Flores spoke, there had been the cacophony of agitated voices. A panic had set in. The little boy — "el ni–o" — was in deep distress. Flores and the boy's father tried to carry him to the taillight holes: "We got him as close to the holes as we could," Flores recalled. But then "people started pushing closer to the hole, and they pushed him backward."

On the trailer's corrugated metal floor, with his father crouched protectively over him, the boy slipped away. Castro-Reyes heard him cry out one last time.

"Daddy, I am dying."

And then the father screamed, and panic descended into pandemonium. Men and women pounded at the side of the trailer with fists and shoes, shouting huskily that they needed to be let out. Hoping to attract attention, others threw caps, shoes, anything that could fit, through the small holes they'd knocked in the doors after clawing away the insulation. There was fevered talk of rocking the trailer to tip it over.

"People were saying we were going to die anyway," recalled one passenger, "so we should roll it over so they would pay attention to us."

Maria Leticia Lara-Castro, a 22-year-old from Honduras, had tried to remain calm, crushed on the floor against one door of the trailer. Now she rose to her feet and tried to fight her way to one of the holes.

"I couldn't," she recalled, "because all the men were there."

So she clawed at the door lining with her fingernails.

"What I wanted to do was poke a hole in the wall of the door."

Unsuccessful and afraid, she squeezed away from the door and toward the front end of the trailer.

"The men were all shouting, " she testified, picking her words carefully, "in a very ugly way."

Up front in the cab, Fatima Holloway heard what she would describe initially as a "bumping" sound. Williams, she said, pretended not to hear. The cab's air conditioner was broken. Even with the windows down and a makeshift fan running, it was hot. And Williams was angry.

Earlier, another trucker had signaled to him that a light on his trailer was broken: "Those [expletive] people," Holloway quoted him as saying, "are [expletive] up my truck." Williams called a smuggler he knew only as Jo Jo, who worked for Abelardo Flores. He repeated what he'd told Holloway, in the same salty language.

This was Williams' second run for Flores. Two weeks earlier, the smuggler had approached Williams at a truck stop: Would he like to make a little extra money? There was a family with a broken-down car that needed a ride north. Eventually Flores let Williams know that the "family" in fact was a load of illegal immigrants, and that his pay would be $6,500.

The trucker was led to the load site outside Harlingen. What he would estimate were about 15 passengers boarded his trailer. He delivered them without difficulty to a drop site behind a motel in Robstown, about an hour north of the checkpoint. This second trip was supposed to follow the same script, but before he reached Robstown, Williams received a call on his cellphone.

"Shit," he said to Holloway, "they want me to take them to Houston."

What had been described as a 90-minute dash through the checkpoint was turning out to be a six-hour haul. And now, at 12:16 a.m., more than two hours after he started, Williams stopped at a little spot in the road called Refugio, "a ghost town," in Holloway's description.

"I got to get them some water," he told Holloway.

A gas station surveillance camera taped the driver, dressed in black jeans and a vinyl vest, purchasing several bottles of water. A few passengers would remember water being pushed through the taillight holes — not nearly enough for everybody, but enough to excite a frenzy. When he returned to the cab, Williams asked Holloway if she knew what "el ni–o" meant.

"He told me," she said, "they were sticking their hands out the back of the trailer and they were yelling 'el ni–o.' "

Holloway, who like Williams spoke no Spanish, told him she wasn't sure, but thought it had something to do with the weather in California. The truck reentered the highway and rolled on.

After Refugio, Williams seemed shaken to Holloway. He rocked in his seat and talked to himself: "He was panicky. He was very panicky…. He was coming to realize, you know, that something got to be done. He was in a panicky mode."

Several times he slowed and veered to the highway shoulder, as if searching for a place to unload: "I got to find someplace to dump this trailer," he kept saying.

Approaching death

INSIDE the trailer, the passengers were hurtling toward death, their bodies battered by heat, dehydration and a shortage of oxygen. In overlapping methods of attack, these three instruments of death would break down the kidneys, lungs, heart and brain. Along the way, they would produce pounding headaches, vomiting, bulging eyes, a maddening shortness of breath and hallucinations.

By now, most of the trailer occupants were too far gone to bang or shout. Some, spent, sunk to their knees in weariness. Others found places in the less-crowded front of the trailer to lie down and await death. Lorenzo Otero-Marquez recalled it felt "fresh" somehow on the floor. He lay in the blackness and listened to others flailing as they died, their bodies convulsed by seizures.

"You could only hear that they were dying," he testified. "They started to strike with their hands louder, and then they stopped striking."

Ana Gladis Marquez-Aguiluz also heard, and felt, these final throes: "They were hitting and some of them were kicking us — strongly, not intentionally."

In the jumble of bodies, the living sometimes became pinned under the dead. The father of the 5-year-old was kneeling over his child when he too passed away.

"Everybody was falling down," recalled Castro-Reyes. "And they were shouting that people were dying. Some of them fell on me. And I was saying, 'Get me out of here. I don't belong here. They threw me on here.' "

Dilcia Xiomara Sambrano-Molina, a 24-year-old Honduran, wondered whether she was still alive: "When I felt I wasn't there, that I was someplace else, I just yelled, to see if I was still alive. I touched the walls to see if I was still there."

Enrique Ortega-Cohate, a pudgy, sad-eyed 27-year-old, who had lived in Arizona for nine years before being arrested for drunk driving and deported, also suspected he was dead.

"It seemed to me," he testified, "that I saw a person — I'm not sure if it was walking or floating — but coming to me, all covered in white."

He experienced the sensation of rising out of his body, which by this point was entangled with a pile of others — some alive, some not — near the doors. And then water bottles came tumbling in through the hole where the taillight had been punched out, one after another.

Williams had stopped at a truck stop just south of the town of Victoria, more than halfway from Harlingen to Houston. He parked on a side road, next to a tree-studded horse pasture. Yet another camera captured the trucker's entrance into the store, time-stamped at 1:37 a.m.

"Hey, general," Williams called out to the clerk, Eloy Garcia. "Do y'all carry water?"

He would buy 30 bottles in all, making three trips from the store to the truck. He did not seem frantic, waiting patiently for change, asking Garcia about the price of potato chips. Yet there was something in his manner that seemed almost too calm, forced.

"Ai yai yai," he exclaimed at one point, rubbing his neck.

He wanted to know the name and location of the store. Cellphone records would indicate that, in between water runs, he was trying to reach the smugglers back in Harlingen. At 2:01 a.m., he sent Holloway into the store for more water.

Her first stop was the restroom. She had urinated on herself in the truck. She bought five large bottles — too big to fit through the hole. Williams demanded she to go back and buy smaller ones.

"Can I ask you a question?" Holloway said to the clerk. "Are there rattlesnakes out there?"

She was weighing her options — perhaps it was time to abandon this trucker and his strange cargo and take her chances in the Texas countryside.

Inside the trailer, Ortega-Cohate heard a voice outside the door. He did not speak English, but after nine years in Arizona had apparently absorbed a bit of the language. He rallied himself from his death visions and placed his mouth close to the hole.

"Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, sir," he began in the most subservient tone imaginable.

"I don't have any more water," the voice answered back.

"Don't have any more water?" Ortega-Cohate repeated. "Open the door. Please. There's a guy gotta die right here."

"What? A guy that died?"

"Yes, sir."

Moments later, one of the twin doors swung open. Those passengers who could still move began to untangle themselves and stagger out, sometimes crawling over a stack of bodies. The stronger ones slipped through a wire fence and disappeared into the horse pasture.

One bolted for the store, where Holloway was completing her second purchase.

"I am thirsty, water," this man begged, squatting and contorting his body. He screamed in fevered Spanish that someone was out to kill him, and the clerk dialed 911. Williams met Holloway outside. A black bandana was wrapped around his face.

"We're out of here," he told her.

There was a loud crash as the truck pulled away. Hastily unhooking the trailer, Williams had neglected to crank down the dolly wheels that hold its nose aloft when detached. Back on the highway, they spotted a police car speeding toward the truck stop. Williams called Abel Flores, who, high on cocaine, had just closed down a Harlingen strip joint named Secrets.

"How many people did you put in my truck?" the trucker demanded of the smuggler, who only two weeks earlier had introduced him to the easy money in human trafficking.

You screwed me, man! Williams shouted. You screwed me.

He turned the truck for Houston, pounding on the steering wheel as he drove. In a few hours, he would check himself into a hospital, complaining of a case of the nerves and telling a story about how a bunch of illegal immigrants somehow had sneaked into his trailer, perhaps while he was asleep or inside a truck stop.


Next: The United States vs. Tyrone

Mapletoft Williams



A journey gone wrong

A truck driver was charged with smuggling illegal immigrants past a checkpoint in Texas. Nineteen people died during the journey, including a 5-year-old boy. How the incident unfolded:

Driver Tyrone Williams and Fatima Holloway rode in the cab of the truck.

As many as 100 people are thought to have boarded the trailer. Police recovered 18 bodies and caught 56 survivors, one of whom died later. Others are thought to have escaped.


48-foot refrigerated trailer. Interior dimensions 47 feet, 1 7/8 inches long by 8 feet, 1 1/4 inches wide.


Harlingen, about 10 p.m., May 13, 2003: As many as 100 illegal immigrants are loaded into the trailer.

Sarita: The truck stops at a Border Patrol checkpoint; the inspection lasts 21 seconds.

Robstown: The original drop site for delivering the immigrants.

Refugio: Williams buys bottles of water for the immigrants.

Victoria, 1:37 a.m.: Williams stops to buy more water. The trailer is opened. The store clerk calls police. Williams unhooks the trailer and drives away.

Houston: Police find Williams in the hospital.


Sources: ESRI, TeleAtlas; Asset Appraisal Services Inc.; U.S. vs. Tyrone Mapletoft Williams. Graphics reporting by TOM REINKEN


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