HOUSTON – Three people accused of operating smuggling cells were part of a ring responsible for the nation's deadliest human smuggling attempt, according to federal prosecutors.
Jury selection was to begin Wednesday in the trial of Victor Sanchez Rodriguez; his wife, Emma Sapata Rodriguez; and Sapata's half-sister, Rosa Sarrata Gonzalez.
The three are charged with harboring and transporting illegal immigrants in connection with a May 2003 smuggling attempt that killed 19 illegal immigrants. If convicted, all three could face up to life in prison.
More than 70 people were being transported in an airtight tractor-trailer from South Texas to Houston when they began to succumb to the deadly heat inside. Seventeen people died of dehydration, overheating and suffocation. Two died later.
The truck driver, Tyrone Williams, abandoned the trailer in Victoria, about 100 miles southwest of Houston. Williams, the only defendant facing the death penalty, was convicted in March 2005 of 38 counts of transporting illegal immigrants, all non-death penalty counts.
Prosecutors want to retry Williams on all 58 counts he faced and thus have another shot at getting a death sentence for him. An appeal is pending.
Prosecutors say Williams, a Jamaican citizen who lived in Schenectady, N.Y., worked for a smuggling ring that included Sanchez, Sapata and Sarrata.
Sanchez, 58, and Sapata, 59, are accused of operating one of three smuggling cells from their home in Brownsville. Sarrata, 51, from San Benito, Texas, worked for one of the other cells, according to prosecutors.
The three fled to Mexico following the trailer's discovery, authorities said. They were later arrested and held there on similar smuggling charges.
In February 2005, a Mexican federal judge dismissed the case, and the three — all U.S. citizens — were returned to the United States.
All three face 58 counts of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. Sanchez and Sapata also face two additional counts on an accusation they held for ransom the 3-year-old son of a Honduran woman who survived the smuggling attempt.
Because of a gag order, neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys are commenting on the case.