A truck driver is in federal custody after police found 38 people – including eight men who had died and 30 men, women and children who were suffering from heat-related illness – in his trailer in the parking lot of a Walmart in San Antonio, Texas, in a human smuggling operation turned tragic, authorities say. Two additional victims later died at a local hospital, bringing the death toll to 10.
James Matthew Bradley Jr., 60, of Clearwater, Florida, has been identified as the driver by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas. He has been charged in a federal complaint with unlawfully transporting aliens for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain. He faces up to life in prison or the death penalty of convicted of the human smuggling charge.
“San Antonio firefighters and police responded to a horrific scene this morning on the southwest side of town. They discovered an alien smuggling venture gone horribly wrong. Eight immigrants were found dead. At least twenty more were in serious condition. All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo,” said Richard Durbin, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, in a statement.
The fire department said in a statement they were called to the parking lot of the Walmart at 8358 IH-35 South about 12:30 a.m. Sunday after a report of “multiple people in the trailer portion of an 18 wheeler. First arriving units found a number of people in the back of this trailer all in varying degrees of medical distress.”
More than two dozen victims were found alive, some fighting for their lives, and they were taken to seven San Antonio-area hospitals, fire officials said. Of those victims, 17 were transported with life-threatening injuries and 13 had injuries or illness that was not immediately life-threatening.
The victims, who have not been identified, include two school-age children who survived, along with adults in their 20s and 30s. Demographic information about who was inside the truck, including their ages, sex and birthplace, was not immediately available Sunday afternoon. They are believed to have died as a result of heat exposure/asphyxiation, police said.
A 39th person was found in the woods near the scene later Sunday and was taken to the hospital.
Some of the victims said they were from Mexico, Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan told the Associated Press. Homan said there were believed to have been more than 100 people inside the truck at one point, according to interviews with survivors.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Bradley Has Claims He Only Learned the Immigrants Were in His Trailer When He Left the Truck to Relieve Himself
Police were called to the Walmart about 12:30 a.m. by an alert employee.
“Late last night we got a call from a Walmart employee to conduct a welfare check on a tractor trailer that was parked in the lot here. He was approached by someone from that truck who was asking for water,” San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said at a press conference. “He came back with the water, called the police, we arrived on the scene and found 8 people dead in the back of the trailer.”
Police took the driver, identified by the Express-News as James Bradley, into custody at the scene, while firefighters rushed to provide aid to the victims, using a triage system.
According to court documents, emergency responders found “people standing and laying at and around the rear of the trailer.”
The truck is believed to have been opened by the driver, Bradley, or someone else, prior to police arriving, McManus said, which allowed the person to seek help from the Walmart employee.
In a statement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas said Bradley is claiming he didn’t know there were people inside his truck.
“An officer encountered a tractor-trailer behind the store, finding a number of people standing and lying in the rear of the trailer, and the driver, Bradley, in the cab. Bradley said he was transporting the trailer from Schaller, Iowa, to Brownsville, Texas,” the statement said. “He denied knowing there were people in the trailer, and discovered them only when he exited the vehicle to relieve himself. He said he attempted to administer aid to them.”
“We treated it kind of like you would an airline crash or other major incident. Each one of those persons has a number and a tag, we’re going to have to reconcile who they are and their sexes and all of those things,” San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood told reporters.
Along with the victims found inside the truck, authorities said others had already left the scene.
“Checking the video from the store we found that there were a number of vehicles that came in and picked up a lot of folks who were inside that trailer that survived the trip,” McManus said.
Police searched Sunday for anyone who might have fled from the truck and was in need of help in the surrounding area, but it does not appear that anyone was found.
Fire Chief Charles Hood said at a press conference Sunday morning that the victims inside the truck likely would not have survived much longer. They were “very fortunate” that there were not 38 people “who were all locked inside the vehicle who were dead,” Hood said.
“Our paramedics and firefighters found that each one of them had heart-rates over about 130 beats-per-minute, which again they were very hot to the touch,” Hood said of the survivors. “These people were in that trailer without any signs of any type of water, so you are looking at a lot of heat stroke, lot of dehydration. As Chief McManus mentioned, we do have at least two school-aged children.”
The truck “was loaded with people,” Hood said. He told CNN, “Unfortunately, some of them were severely overheated, and that was a refrigerated truck with no refrigeration. 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 because if they would have spent another night in that environment, we would have 38 people who would not have survived.”
He said the heat stroke or other heat injuries could cause permanent brain damage.
Undocumented immigrants interviewed by federal investigators described a harrowing journey, according to court documents. One man, identified by his initial, J.M.M.J, said he left his home in Aguascalientes, Mexico, to travel to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, where he would be smuggled into the United States and to San Antonio, prosecutors said in court documents. He said he would have to pay the smugglers $5,500 after arriving:
He stated he waited with a group of 28 people until 8 p.m. to be smuggled across the river into the United States. He was told by the smuggler that people linked to the Zetas (Mexican drug cartel) would charge 11,000 Mexican pesos for protection and 1,500 Mexican pesos to cross by raft since the river ran deep in that area. The money was collected and his group crossed the river by raft in three trips. Once across, they walked until the next day.
The next day at about 9 a.m., his group was picked up by a silver Chevrolet Silverado truck and taken to the trailer that he later travelled in. He stated his group was the last of a larger group that was already inside. He estimated that there were already about 70 people inside. He was told to get inside and he would be transported later that evening. The smugglers closed the door and the interior of the trailer was pitch blacj and it was already hot inside. He stated they were not provided with any water or food. People inside were making noise to get someone’s attention but nobody ever came.
According to court documents, the man told investigators about 9 p.m. the door of the trailer was opened and they were told they would be leaving. Each group was given a different color tape to identify the waiting smugglers which group they would be picking up, the man told investigators. The smuggler also told the people inside the truck that the trailer had refrigeration and “not to worry about the trip.”
The man said the first hour was OK, but people then started to have trouble breathing and some began to pass out.
“People began hitting the trailer walls and making noise to get the driver’s attentjon. The driver never stopped. People had a hole in the trailer wall to provide some ventilation and they started taking turns breathing from the hole,” the man told prosecutors.
Another immigrant, A.L.V., said he was traveling with seven distant relatives and had been with a group of 24 people in a “stash house” in Laredo for 11 days, prosecutors said. A.L.V. said when his group arrived at the truck there were already about 70 people inside and “it was very hot.”
A third immigrant, “H.L-C.,” who was hospitalized, said he was traveling with his brother and they also crossed at Laredo.
“He stated he paid 60,000 pesos for the Mexican portion of the trip to the United States,” prosecutors said. “They had been traveling for approximately one day before getting into the trailer. Minnesota was their final destination. He stated he thought there were approximately 180 to 200 people in the tractor-trailer when he got in.”
2. Bradley Says He Was ‘Run Over by Spanish People’ & Saw ‘Bodies Just Lying on the Floor Like Meat,’ But Didn’t Call 911
Bradley could face up to life in prison or the death penalty if convicted. According to the criminal complaint, he “did knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that aliens had come to, entered or remained in the United States in violation of law, transport and move and attempt to transport and move such aliens for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain to wit: J.M.M.-J, H-L-C, A.L.V., and approximately thirty six others within the United States, by means of transportation and otherwise, in furtherance of such violation of law resulting in the death of approximately 10 of the aliens so transported.”
Bradley was in the rear camper of the tractor-trailer when police arrived at the Walmart parking lot, according to court documents. He exited after an officer shined a light in the cab. He told the officer that the trailer he was hauling had been sold and he was driving it from Schaller, Iowa, to Brownsville, Texas, police said. He also told the officer he did not know the contents and/or cargo inside the trailer.
“Bradley then stated after he parked his tractor-trailer he exited the vehicle to urinate when he heard movement in the trailer,” according to court documents. “Bradley said he then went to the rear of the trailer and opened the door Bradley stated he tried to administer aid to the occupants. At that time the officer detained Bradley and returned to the rear of the trailer and observed that several of the occupants were already deceased.”
Bradley also told investigators he was traveling to San Antonio from Laredo, Texas, after “getting his tractor-trailer washed and detailed,” according to court documents. He said he had stopped to have his tractor-trailer washed at a truck stop in Laredo at IH 35 and Mile Marker 13, he then went to the “old truck stop” at IH 35 and Mile Marker 3 to have the truck detailed and polished.
“Bradley stated the purpose of his trip was to deliver the trailer he was hauling to Brownsville, Texas,” prosecutors said in court documents. “Bradley said he was traveling from Iowa to Brownsville in order to deliver the trailer to its new owner. Bradley stated his boss sold the trailer to a person in Brownsville and asked him to deliver it. Bradley said he was not given a time frame to deliver the trailer nor was he given the delivery address.”
According to court documents:
Bradley stated when he arrived at the Walmart he exited the vehicle to urinate and he heard banging and shaking in the trailer. Bradley said he went to open the doors and was surprised when he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people and knocked to the groiund. Bradley said he then noticed bodies just lying on the floor like meat. Bradley said he knew at least one of them was dead. Bradley said he knew the trailer refrigeration system didn’t work and that the 4 vent holes were probably clogged up.
Bradley stated he went back to the tractor and called his wife but she didn’t answer. Bradley said he did not call 911.
Bradley stated approximately 30-40 people ran and scattered out of the trailer after he opened the doors. He said they mostly ran through the parking lot and a few just stayed in the grass area. Bradley stated no one else was in the area and no vehicles were there to pick up passengers.
Police have said they reviewed security footage and saw vehicles arriving to pick up people from the truck.
An undocumented immigrant who was in the truck, identified as J.M.M.J., told investigators that when they arrived at the Walmart, “the driver braked hard and people inside the trailer fell over because they were so weak.”
He also said, “the rear doors were opened and people started to swarm out. Six black SUVs were waiting to pick up people. The SUVs were full in a matter of minutes and left right away. He did not see who had opened the doors and did not see who the driver of the semi was.”
You can read the criminal complaint filed against Bradley below:
Bradley is scheduled to make his first court appearance at 11 a.m. at the John H. Wood Jr. U.S. Courthouse before U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Chestney.
The case is being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, with the Department of Homeland Security, specifically ICE, investigating, along with local authorities. Bradley remains in custody and charges, including those related to human trafficking, are expected to be brought against him soon, the San Antonio Express-News reports. A federal complaint is expected to be filed Monday morning, the U.S. Attorney’s Office told the newspaper.
Bradley was held overnight at a federal detention facility in San Antonio.
“The South Texas heat is punishing this time of year. These people were helpless in the hands of their transporters,” Durbin said in a statement. “Imagine their suffering, trapped in a stifling trailer in 100-plus degree heat. The driver is in custody and will be charged. We will work with the Homeland Security Investigations and the local responders to identify those who were responsible for this tragedy.”
The investigation, which also includes the San Antonio Police homicide unit, is ongoing.
“The driver and whomever else we find in this will be facing state and federal charges,” Police Chief William McManus said.
“Anyone having any information should call the ICE tip line at 866-347-2423. Any persons who were transported in the trailer should immediately seek medical attention,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. “The Department of Homeland Security/Homeland Security Investigations together with Immigration Customs Enforcement — Enforcement and Removal Office, the San Antonio Police Department, the San Antonio Fire Department, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, the Border Patrol, U. S. Attorney’s Office, and the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office, are continuing the investigation.”
3. The Trailer Is Owned by Iowa-Based Pyle Transportation, but the Company Says the Driver Is an Owner-Operator Who Hauls Under Pyle’s Name
The tractor-trailer truck has Iowa plates and is owned by Pyle Transportation, which is based in Schaller, Iowa, the San Antonio Express-News reports. The company’s owner told the newspaper that James Bradley is an owner-operator who owns his own semi-truck, but is authorized to haul under the Pyle name.
“It’s our trailer, but it’s his truck,” Mike Pyle told the newspaper.
Pyle and his co-owner, Tom Kolton, told the newspaper that Bradley was not authorized to haul anything in Texas when the incident occurred. They said they were shocked by what happened.
“This is terrible,” Pyle said.
Little information about Bradley, who is from Florida, but has also been reported as being from Louisville, has been made available.
Brian Pyle, another Pyle Transportation owner, told the Washington Post that Bradley managed his own deliveries and operated independently from their company.
“This was his very first trip,” Brian Pyle told the Post. “It’s a common thing in the trucking industry … He had my name on the side, and I pay for his insurance. He makes his own decisions, buys his own fuel.”
But questions remain about the relationship between Bradley and Pyle. Bradley said in court documents that he was taking the truck to Brownsville, Texas, from Iowa after the owner, apparently Pyle, sold it. And Bradley’s Facebook page shows him in December 2016 in a Pyle Transportation shirt, and features a Pyle truck.
Brian Pyle said he and his company did not know what Bradley was hauling.
4. Bradley Has Previous Arrests for Menacing, Grand Theft, Assault, Escape & Several Traffic Offenses on His Record
James Bradley Jr., who also uses the name James Bear Bradley, has a criminal record dating back to at least 1997, with arrests in multiple states on charges including menacing, assault, grand theft, escape and several traffic offenses, online court records show.
He was arrested in 1997 in Arapahoe County, Colorado, on charges of felony menacing, menacing with a deadly weapon and third-degree assault. He pleaded guilty in 1998 to the felony menacing charge and the others were dropped. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and two years of probation.
The probation was revoked in 2003 and he was arrested a year later in 2004 on a felony escape warrant while in Hillsborough County, Florida. He was also charged in Florida with grand theft, but the charge was dropped after he spent more than a month in jail. He was then extradited to Colorado, where he received one year in prison on the escape charge.
His probation was revoked again in 2005 and he was again sent to prison in Colorado, court records show.
He has also been convicted of several driving offenses, including speeding, being overweight on axle 1st/3rd, misuse of equipment and driving without evidence of financial responsibility.
Bradley, who has been married twice, has most recently lived in Louisville, Kentucky, according to public records, though federal officials have identified him as being from Clearwater, Florida. He has also lived in Sacramento and Rancho Cordova, California, along with Denver, Aurora, and Broomfield Colorado.
Bradley has been a truck driver for several years, according to court records. When he was arrested in 2004 in Florida, he listed his employment as trucker for IBS Transportation.
5. The Police Chief Says ‘This Is Not an Isolated Incident’ & Urged Residents to Report Possible Human Trafficking Activity
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said at a press conference that this incident is part of an ongoing fight against human trafficking near the U.S.-Mexico border.
McManus said, “this is not an isolated incident. This happens quite frequently. If you see something like this happening, and you can see that it happens late at night, under darkness, because they don’t want to be discovered obviously, but anybody who sees anything like this, people being transferred out of a back of a trailer or being transferred to some vehicle from another, they need to call (911).”
In a statement after the San Antonio incident, Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE, said:
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. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations works year-round to identify, dismantle, and disrupt the transnational criminal networks that smuggle people into and throughout the United States. These networks have repeatedly shown a reckless disregard for those they smuggle, as last night’s case demonstrates. I personally worked on a tragic tractor-trailer case in Victoria, Texas, in 2003 in which 19 people were killed as a result of the smugglers’ total indifference to the safety of those smuggled and to the law.
According to the San Antonio Express-News, Border Patrol agents in the border city of Laredo, about 2 and a half hours away from San Antonio, have seen an increase in the use of tractor-trailers in smuggling operations recently.
On June 19, 44 people from Mexico and Guatemala were found after a truck was stopped, the newspaper reports. On July 7, agents found 72 people from Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala and El Salvador inside a locked truck and on July 8, found 33 people inside a trailer stopped at a checkpoint. T
“These criminal organizations view these individuals as mere commodities without regard for their safety,” Laredo Sector Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Gabriel Acosta said in a statement last week. “The blatant disregard for human life will not be tolerated. We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to disrupt and dismantle these organizations and prosecute those responsible.”