By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The driver of a truck packed with immigrants, 10 of whom died due to sweltering Texas heat in July, pleaded guilty on Monday to human smuggling charges and could face up to life in prison, prosecutors said.
James Bradley Jr., 61, pleaded guilty at a federal court in San Antonio to one count of conspiracy to transport aliens resulting in death and one count of transporting aliens resulting in death, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas said in a statement.
A sentencing hearing will be held in January, the office said. Lawyers for Bradley, who has been in custody since his arrest, declined to comment.
Bradley told investigators he was caught by surprise when he opened the trailer doors outside a Walmart store in San Antonio on July 23, only to be knocked down by a group of "Spanish" people pouring out of the rig, according to the criminal complaint filed in the case.
Many people aboard ran after he opened the doors, but police found 39 people in and around the trailer, many suffering from dehydration and heat stroke.
Eight people were pronounced dead on the scene and two others died at hospitals. Those who died were from Mexico and Guatemala and included four people between the ages of 14 to 17, officials said.
Prosecutors said Bradley knew he was transporting human cargo from the border city of Laredo to San Antonio and acted with careless indifference to human life. Those aboard the truck told authorities that perhaps as many as 200 people were packed in the trailer, prosecutors said.
The case brought new attention to the dangers of human trafficking as U.S. President Donald Trump's administration pledges to crack down on illegal immigration.
“Today’s admission of guilt by Mr. Bradley helps to close the door on one of the conspirators responsible for causing the tragic loss of life and wreaking havoc on those who survived this horrific incident,” Shane Folden, special agent in charge with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, said in a statement.
Prosecutors said they have charged Pedro Silva Segura, an undocumented alien living in Laredo, as a co-conspirator. Silva, 47, was in custody and his lawyer was not immediately available for comment.
In what is considered the worst immigrant smuggling case in modern U.S. history, 19 people died after traveling in an 18-wheeler truck through Victoria, Texas, in 2003.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Additional rpeorting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by James Dalgleish and Dan Grebler)