Judge sentences last defendant in deadliest US smuggling attempt to 14 years in prison

HOUSTON (AP) — The last of more than a dozen people indicted for their roles in the deadliest human smuggling attempt in U.S. history was sentenced to prison Monday, more than seven years after the bodies of nearly 20 illegal immigrants were discovered in a tractor-trailer.

Octavio Torres-Ortega was given a 14-year term for participating in a smuggling ring that packed more than 70 illegal immigrants into the back of the stifling truck in May 2003 and tried to transport them from southern Texas to Houston.

The immigrants were found after the driver abandoned the trailer at a truck stop in Victoria, about 100 miles southwest of Houston. Seventeen people, including a 5-year-old boy, were found dead in the trailer. Two others died later. All the deaths were attributed to dehydration, overheating and suffocation.

A tearful Torres-Ortega, one of 14 people indicted in the case, apologized before being sentenced.

"I'm not here to say I'm innocent. I'm guilty," Torres-Ortega, 44, who is from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, said through a Spanish language interpreter.

He was sentenced for one count of conspiring to harbor and transport illegal immigrants in the United States resulting in death and serious bodily injury. Fifty-seven other similar counts were dropped as part of a plea agreement.

"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," said Houston-based U.S. Attorney Jose Angel Moreno.

The smuggling attempt began in the south Texas city of Harlingen, where dozens of immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic were packed inside the tractor-trailer.

Initially, they were to be taken about 120 miles north to Robstown, a small town near Corpus Christi and unloaded there. But the smugglers told the driver they would pay him extra if he pushed on to Houston, another 215 miles.

Temperatures inside the airtight truck skyrocketed as the trip progressed, reaching 173 degrees Fahrenheit.

Surviving immigrants testified at other defendants' trials that they took off sweat-drenched clothes for relief, crowded around holes they punched in the truck so they could breathe and kicked out a signal light to try to get the attention of passing motorists.

Torres-Ortega said if he had known the trailer-trailer was going to be overloaded or that the immigrants were going to be taken to Houston, he wouldn't have allowed those he smuggled to go in the vehicle.

"I didn't want anything to happen to them," Torres-Ortega said. "But ... all that happened, it was not in my hands."

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore said she didn't believe the smuggling ring was "trying to kill anybody."

"But by putting them in that (tractor-trailer, Torres-Ortega) substantially created the risk of death," Gilmore said.

Prosecutor Daniel Rodriguez had asked for a sentence of nearly 17 years, citing the number of deaths and Torres-Ortega's history of human smuggling. Rodriguez said Torres-Ortega ran a large human trafficking organization in Mexico that smuggled immigrants across the Rio Grande.

Torres-Ortega initially fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution. He was arrested by Mexican authorities in August 2003. But in 2005, charges against him were dropped by a Mexican judge. He was arrested again in 2006 and held until his extradition in October 2007.

Of the 13 others indicted in the case, 11 either pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial and two others had charges against them dismissed.

The driver of the trailer, Tyrone Williams, was the only defendant whom prosecutors had sought the death penalty against. Jurors chose to sentence him to life in prison in January 2007.