The truck driver accused of smuggling at least 100 illegal immigrants inside a sweltering tractor-trailer, 10 of whom died, has said he was unaware of the human cargo he was hauling until he took a rest stop in Texas, court papers showed on Monday.
James Bradley Jr., 60, told investigators he was caught by surprise when he opened the trailer doors outside a Walmart store in San Antonio, 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.
But the narrative attributed to Bradley, who could face the death penalty if convicted, was at odds with authorities' accounts of a small fleet of SUVs waiting in the Walmart lot to carry away some of the immigrants who clamoured out of the truck.
Bradley was arrested on Sunday after police said they found the bodies of eight people in the truck, along with 30 to 40 others in and around the vehicle suffering from dehydration and heat stroke. All were illegal immigrants, the bulk of them Mexican nationals, ranging in age from 15 into their 20s and 30s, officials said.
Two died later, bringing the death toll to 10, while 29 remained hospitalized on Monday, according to Thomas Homan, acting director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Daytime temperatures in the hours before the truck arrived had topped 100 Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius).
Bradley made a brief appearance in federal court on Monday in San Antonio, where he was charged with one count of transporting illegal immigrants - a felony for which he could face capital punishment if convicted because the crime resulted in deaths.
More than 100 people were originally crammed into the stifling big-rig trailer, Homan said. But one of the survivors later told investigators that some managed to flee the scene before police arrived, swarming out of the truck when the rear doors opened to be whisked away by six black sport utility vehicles waiting for them nearby.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus also said video footage showed several vehicles coming to pick up people who were inside the truck, though Bradley, according to court documents unsealed on Monday, denied seeing any such vehicles.
Two of the survivors, according to the criminal complaint, recounted having been smuggled in small groups of immigrants across the Rio Grande River from Mexico to Texas, where they were harboured in "stash houses" around the border town of Laredo before being rounded up into the tractor-trailer for the trip to San Antonio, about 150 miles (240 km) to the north.
Describing desperate conditions inside the pitch-black interior of the truck without water or proper ventilation, one survivor recalled people taking turns to gasp for fresh air through a hole in the trailer's side. Some passed out, while others shouted and pounded on the walls of the truck to get the driver's attention. Their pleas went unanswered until arriving at the Walmart, according to the account.
One survivor said about 70 people were already present when he climbed into the trailer with his group of nearly 30. Another estimated as many as 200 were aboard in total.