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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

Last defendant in deadliest human smuggling operation sentenced to 14 years

HOUSTON - The last defendant in the nation's deadliest human smuggling operation was sentenced on Monday to 14 years in federal prison for his involvement that killed 19 illegal aliens from asphyxiation, dehydration and hyperthermia. This sentence was announced by U. S. Attorney José Angel Moreno, Southern District of Texas, and Mike Feinberg, acting special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Investigations in Houston.

Octavio Torres-Ortega, 44, is a Mexican national who fled to Mexico following the discovery of more than 74 illegal aliens - 19 of whom died - in and around an abandoned tractor-trailer in Victoria, Texas, in May 2003. Torres-Ortega is the last of 12 persons to be convicted and now sentenced for his role in this 2003 smuggling tragedy.

Torres-Ortega was convicted in April 2008 of conspiring to harbor and transport illegal aliens which resulted in death and serious bodily injury. He was sentenced on June 7 by U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore to 168 months in federal prison without parole, to be followed by a five-year-term of supervised release.

"This conviction is the last chapter of a tragedy where many lives were lost," said Feinberg. "Human smugglers are merciless criminals who prey upon and profit from people seeking a new life in our country. ICE remains committed to preventing human smuggling by using every available resource to investigate, dismantle and present for prosecution anyone involved in the unlawful activity."

"The sentencing of Torres-Ortega - seven years after the tragic events that triggered an intensive international investigation and resulted in several jury trials - brings to a close the criminal case against the persons responsible for the single most deadly alien smuggling operation in the nation," said Moreno. "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."

Torres-Ortega and 11 others were convicted for their roles in smuggling 74 illegal aliens from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua across the Rio Grande River from Mexico into the United States. They were also convicted of harboring the aliens in safe houses in south Texas, and loading the aliens aboard a tractor-trailer. The tractor-trailer was driven and subsequently abandoned by Tyrone Mapletoft Williams at a truck stop near Victoria, Texas, on May 14, 2003. Seventeen illegal aliens, including a five-year-old boy and his father, were found dead in and around the abandoned trailer by Victoria County Sheriff's Office deputies. Two others, who were found in critical condition, subsequently died at Victoria-area hospitals. An additional 55 illegal aliens, who survived the four-hour trip in the sweltering and insulated trailer from Harlingen, Texas, to Victoria, were found in and around the trailer.

An investigation conducted by ICE special agents subsequently identified the leaders and members of four separate smuggling groups, including Torres-Ortega's group, responsible for smuggling, harboring and ultimately loading the more than 70 aliens discovered May 14. Karla Patricia Chavez-Joya and members of her group hired Williams, a commercial driver of a refrigerated tractor-trailer rig, to provide transport for her own "load" and offered the services to Torres-Ortega and the others. The smugglers charged fees ranging from $1,800 to $5,500 per alien. One-half of the fee was demanded and received once the illegal alien had arrived in south Texas; the remainder was due upon arrival at their final destination.

Following the gruesome discovery in Victoria, Texas, Torres-Ortega fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution. The Unites States sought his extradition and on Oct. 16, 2007, the Mexican government extradited Torres-Ortega to the United States to face these charges. He has been in federal custody since that date.

Other smugglers previously convicted and still serving sentences for their part in this deadly operation include Chavez-Joya, serving a 209-month-term of imprisonment; Victor Rodriguez, his wife, Emma Sapata-Rodriguez, and his son, Victor Jesus Rodriguez, serving prison terms of 280, 180 and 247 months, respectively; Fredy Giovanni Garcia-Tobar, serving 180 months confinement; Rosa Maria Serrata, serving 151 months; Norma Gonzalez-Sanchez, serving 84 months confinement; and Abelardo Flores Jr. serving 175 months. Two other defendants - Juan Carlos Don Juan-Gaytán, sentenced to 14 months, and Fatima Holloway, sentenced to time served - have completed their prison terms.

Williams, who drove the tractor-trailer, was convicted by a jury and sentenced in August 2007 by U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal. He is serving 19 concurrent lifetime terms of imprisonment, and has been fined $150,000.

Prosecuting the people responsible for the single-largest loss of life in a human smuggling operation is the result of the outstanding effort and unwavering assistance of several federal, state and local agencies. The U. S. Attorney extends his appreciation to the following agencies: ICE, the Victoria County Sheriff's Office, Victoria County Fire Department, Quail Creek Volunteer Fire Department, Texas Department of Public Safety, U. S. Border Patrol, the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, and to the trial team - Assistant U. S. Attorneys Daniel C. Rodriguez, Jeffery Vaden and Tony Roberts.