Truck Driver Pleads Guilty to Smuggling 39 Immigrantsby Jana Ritter - Published: 4/13/2016
A truck driver caught smuggling 39 undocumented immigrants in the back of a sweltering trailer last September, has agreed to a plea deal with the federal government this week. While some truck drivers willingly participate in smuggling operations for the cash, the industry has also been warned about illegals hiding in semi-trucks as well. Either way, big rigs continue to be a big part of cross border crimes.
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Court documents stated that 33-year-old Drew Christopher Potter had been driving a tractor-trailer with 39 illegal Mexican immigrants on September 18, 2015 and had stopped at the Road Ranger convenience store at Highway 57 and IH-35 South in Frio County, TX. Several people in the parking lot witnessed Potter giving water to the immigrants and then putting them back inside the trailer. Aristides Jimenez, a deputy special agent for Homeland Security Investigations, said that had it not been for one person who called 911, they would have been dealing with 30 something dead bodies rather than 39 individuals. “This is the reality of these individuals facing death, risking their lives to come to our country,” Jimenez said.
A Frio County sheriff deputy’s body camera captured what was said to be the largest rescue in the area. A total of 39 undocumented men, women and children suffering from heat exhaustion were rescued from the trailer after spending nearly five hours locked inside the suffocating conditions. "They were real sweaty, dehydrated and had heat exhaustion. Some of them we had to literally drag out of the back of the trailer because they couldn't walk," said Deputy Jerry Reyna at the time of the rescue. The immigrants told authorities they had been smuggled into the U.S. near Laredo and had been kept in various stash houses around the area before being taken to a warehouse and loaded onto the trailer for the trip to San Antonio. Some even claimed that they resisted going into the trailer but they were "ordered or forced to get in." At least one immigrant also told investigators that he saw Potter at the warehouse while they were being loaded into the trailer.
Although Potter initially denied knowing what he was hauling, he eventually revealed more under questioning by Homeland Security investigators. He said that it started a month earlier when he simply posted an ad on Craigslist looking for work as a "driver for hire" and he was contacted by two men offering him a job driving trailers from Laredo to San Antonio. Potter said he had picked up two other trailers prior to his arrest and told investigators he knew he was "doing something illegal" but never checked the cargo area of the trailer. He allegedly stated, "The less I know, the better." Potter also told investigators that he had been paid $800 for the trip that led to his arrest.
This week Potter pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport immigrants for the purpose of financial gain and as part of the plea agreement, he now admits he knew exactly what he was transporting. Usually the charge can carry up to 10 years in federal prison, a maximum fine of $250,000 and up to three years of supervised release, but the two sides have agreed to a sentence between 41 and 71 months.
“It’s a gamble for smugglers and for the people who are at their mercy,” Jimenez said.