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June 7, 2010

LAST DEFENDANT IN DEADLIEST SMUGGLING OPERATION SENTENCED

(HOUSTON) – The last defendant charged and convicted for his involvement in a smuggling operation that left 19 undocumented aliens dead or dying of asphyxiation, dehydration and hyperthermia, has been sentenced, United States Attorney José Angel Moreno and Mike Feinberg, acting special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Investigations in Houston, announced today.

Octavio Torres-Ortega, 44, a Mexican national who fled to Mexico following the discovery of more than 74 undocumented aliens – 19 of whom died – in and around an abandoned tractor-trailer in Victoria, Texas, in May 2003, is the last of 12 persons to be convicted and now sentenced for his role in this 2003 smuggling tragedy.

Convicted of conspiring to harbor and transport aliens illegally in the United States resulting in death and serious bodily injury in April 2008, U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore sentenced Torres-Ortega today to serve a total of 168 months in federal prison, without parole, to be followed by a  five-year-term of supervised release.

“The sentencing of Torres-Ortega - seven years after the tragic events that triggered an intensive international investigation and resulted in several jury trials - brings to a close the criminal case against the persons responsible for the single most deadly alien smuggling operation in the nation,” said Moreno. “While the lives lost can never be regained, the unwavering commitment of the federal, state and local law enforcement agents and officers who investigated this case and the talents and undaunted perseverance of the trial team have seen justice served on their behalf.”  

Torres-Ortega and 11 others were convicted for their roles in smuggling approximately 74 undocumented aliens from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua across the Rio Grande River from Mexico into the United States, harboring the aliens in safe houses in South Texas and loading the aliens aboard a tractor-trailer driven and subsequently abandoned by Tyrone Mapletoft Williams at a truck stop near Victoria, Texas, on May 14, 2003. Seventeen undocumented aliens, including a five-year-old boy and his father, were found dead by deputies of the Victoria County Sheriff’s office in and around the abandoned trailer. Two others were found in critical condition and subsequently died at Victoria area hospitals. An additional 55 undocumented aliens, who survived the four-hour trip in the sweltering and insulated trailer from Harlingen, Texas, to Victoria, were found in and around the trailer.

“This conviction is the last chapter of a tragedy where many lives were lost. Human smugglers are merciless criminals who prey upon and profit from people seeking a new life in our country,” said Feinberg. “ICE remains committed to preventing human smuggling by using every available resource to investigate, dismantle and present for prosecution anyone found involved in the unlawful activity.”

An investigation conducted by ICE special agents subsequently identified the leaders and members of four separate smuggling groups, including Torres-Ortega’s group, responsible for smuggling, harboring and ultimately loading the more than 70 aliens discovered May 14. Karla Patricia Chavez-Joya and members of her group hired Williams, a commercial driver of a refrigerated tractor-trailer rig, to provide transport for her own “load” and offered the services to Torres-Ortega and the others. The smugglers charged fees ranging from $1,800 to $5,500, of which one half was demanded and received once the undocumented alien had arrived in South Texas, with the remainder due upon arrival at their final destination.

Following the gruesome discovery in Victoria, Torres-Ortega fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution. The Unites States sought his extradition and on Oct. 16, 2007, the Mexican government extradited Torres-Ortega to the United States to face these charges. He has been in federal custody since that date.

Other smugglers previously convicted and still serving sentences for their part in this deadly operation include Chavez-Joya, serving a 209-month-term of imprisonment; Victor Rodriguez, his wife, Emma Sapata-Rodriguez, and his son, Victor Jesus Rodriguez, serving prison terms of 280, 180 and 247 months, respectively; Fredy Giovanni Garcia-Tobar, serving 180 months confinement;  Rosa Maria Serrata, serving 151 months;  Norma Gonzalez-Sanchez, serving 84 months confinement; and Abelardo Flores Jr. serving 175 months. Two other defendants - Juan Carlos Don Juan-Gaytán, sentenced to 14 months, and Fatima Holloway, sentenced to time served, have completed their prison terms.

Williams, convicted by a jury’s verdict and sentenced in August 2007 by U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, is serving 19 concurrent lifetime terms of imprisonment and has been fined $150,000.

The prosecution of these persons responsible for the single largest loss of life in a human smuggling operation is the result of the outstanding effort and unwavering assistance of several federal, state and local agencies. The United States Attorney extends his appreciation to ICE, the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office, Victoria County Fire Department, Quail Creek Volunteer Fire Department, Texas Department of Public Safety, United States Border Patrol, the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team and to the trial team – Assistant United States Attorneys Daniel C. Rodriguez, Jeffery Vaden and Tony Roberts.

 

 

 

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