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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

Alien smuggling ringleader faces life in prison after death of 5 people

PECOS, Texas — The ringleader of an alien smuggling organization faces life in prison after five people were killed during a head-on collision in 2004.

A jury convicted Armando Garcia-Lopez, 43, former resident of Tornillo, Texas, on Jan. 19 in connection with an undocumented alien smuggling operation that resulted in five deaths in 2004. The conviction resulted from an investigation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Jurors found Garcia-Lopez guilty of one count of conspiring to transport aliens resulting in death; three counts of illegally transporting aliens resulting in death; three counts of aiding and abetting the illegal transportation of aliens; and six counts of aiding and abetting the harboring and concealing of an alien.

On April 5, 2004, Melinda O'Brien, of Floydada, Texas, died during a head-on collision involving her semi-tractor trailer rig and another semi-tractor trailer rig. The accident occurred in the early morning hours on Highway 285 about 18 miles south of Pecos, Texas.

Testimony during the two-day trial revealed that at the time of the accident, O'Brien was traveling northbound in the southbound lane while transporting six undocumented aliens inside her semi-tractor trailer cab. In addition to O'Brien, three of the undocumented aliens died at the scene of the crash. A fifth individual, Paul Wesley Wilkins, of Kermit, Texas, also died as a result of the initial accident. Wilkins crashed his vehicle into O'Brien's overturned trailer, which couldn't be seen due to weather conditions.

Evidence presented to the jury established that Garcia-Lopez recruited stash house operators and drivers to transport illegal aliens. Testimony also revealed that the undocumented alien passengers in O'Brien's vehicle were part of Garcia-Lopez's smuggling operation.

Following the accident in April 2004, Garcia-Lopez fled to Mexico. Federal authorities arrested him seven years later in Alpine, Texas. Garcia-Lopez, who remains in custody, is set to be sentenced April 16 before U.S. District Judge Robert Junell in Pecos.

ICE HSI special agents in Fort Stockton, Alpine and El Paso, Texas, investigated this case, with the assistance of the U.S. Marshals Service.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James J. Miller, Jr., Western District of Texas, successfully prosecuted the case.