A federal grand jury has indicted James Matthew Bradley Jr., the driver of a tractor-trailer packed with immigrants being smuggled into the United States, on five counts related to the deaths of 10 people and injuries to 29 others trapped inside. Some of the charges carry the death penalty.

James Matthew Bradley Jr.

Bradley, 60, was indicted Wednesday on one count of conspiracy to transport and harbor undocumented aliens for financial gain resulting in death, one count of transportation of undocumented aliens resulting in death, one count of conspiracy to transport and harbor undocumented aliens for financial gain resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy, one count of transporting undocumented aliens resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy, and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

“Upon conviction of the conspiracy and transportation-resulting-in-death charges, Bradley faces up to life imprisonment or death,” according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas. The other counts could result in up to 20 years in federal prison.

The immigrants, most of whom were from Mexico, paid smugglers thousands of dollars to travel north from the Mexican border into the United States last month. Survivors recounted an hours-long journey from Laredo to San Antonio in the sweltering trailer, which did not have a functioning air-conditioning unit. They also said they banged on the truck’s inner walls for hours and yelled for help as the deadly South Texas heat took its toll in the early morning hours of July 23.

Bradley told authorities that he was unaware of his cargo until he took a bathroom break at a Southwest side Walmart and heard banging from inside his truck. It was then that he opened the trailer’s doors and was “run over by Spanish people,” Bradley said. Even then, Bradley failed to call 911, and it was a Walmart employee who alerted police after a passenger escaped and requested water, police said. At the scene, authorities found a .38-caliber pistol inside the trailer allegedly belonging to Bradley.

According to court records, the immigrants estimated the trailer contained between 70 and 200 people during the journey from the border to San Antonio, and video footage in the hands of law enforcement authorities show some of those transported were taken away by smugglers before authorities reached the scene.

As of Thursday, two victims remain hospitalized, five have been released from hospitals and turned over to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement authorities, and 22 individuals are in federal custody as material witnesses in the case. Of the five individuals in ICE custody, four juveniles are under the supervision of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and one adult is being processed through the U.S. Immigration Court.

No date for an arraignment or trial has been set, said Daryl Fields, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Antonio.

The Mexican government is not involved in the investigation, but the Mexican Consulate in San Antonio has repatriated several of the bodies of the deceased and offered legal services to survivors.

The July 23 tragedy marks one of the deadliest cases of human smuggling in the last ten years and has highlighted the increased dangers of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Over the past 20 years, more than 7,000 men, women, and children have died along the Southwest border, according to a recent reports, and deaths have continued to climb even as apprehensions and attempts to cross illegally have decreased.

During a recent visit to San Antonio, Mexico’s Ambassador to the United States Gerónimo Gutiérrez said both countries should work together to address human smuggling operations that continue to claim lives on both sides of the border.

Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther worked as a bilingual reporter and editorial assistant for the Rivard Report from June 2016 to October 2017. She is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico and holds a bachelor's in English...