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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

Alien smuggling ringleader sentenced to nearly 17 years in federal prison following the deaths of 5 in 2004

PECOS, Texas – The ringleader of an alien smuggling organization responsible for the death of five people was sentenced to 16 years and eight months in federal prison May 21, following an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations special agents.

Armando Garcia-Lopez, 43, former resident of Tornillo, Texas, was sentenced in connection with an illegal alien smuggling operation that resulted in five deaths in 2004.

In January 2012, a jury convicted Garcia-Lopez of conspiracy to transport aliens resulting in death, illegally transporting aliens resulting in death, aiding and abetting the illegal transportation of aliens, and aiding and abetting the harboring and concealing of an alien.

On April 5, 2004, Melinda O'Brien of Floydada, Texas, died as a result of a head-on collision involving her semitractor trailer and another semitractor trailer. The accident occurred in the early morning on Highway 285 about 17 miles south of Pecos, Texas.

Testimony during the January trial revealed that at the time of the accident, O'Brien was traveling northbound in the southbound lane, while transporting six illegal aliens in the cab of her semitractor trailer. In addition to O'Brien, three aliens also died at the scene of the crash. A fifth person, Paul Wesley Wilkins, of Kermit, Texas, also died. He crashed his vehicle into O'Brien's overturned trailer, which could not be seen because of the weather conditions.

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

Garcia-Lopez fled to Mexico following the April 2004 vehicle crash. However, seven years later he was arrested by federal authorities in Alpine, Texas. In addition to the prison term, Garcia-Lopez was ordered to pay $11,000 restitution to the Wilkins family, as well as be placed under supervised release for five years after he completes his prison term.