SAN ANTONIO — A truck driver faces the possibility of the death penalty or life in prison under a federal criminal complaint filed against him Monday in the deaths of 10 immigrants who were being smuggled in a tractor-trailer found in a Walmart parking lot.
The driver, James M. Bradley Jr., was charged under a federal law against knowingly transporting people who are in the country illegally — a law that provides for an unlimited prison term or capital punishment, if the crime results in a death. Mr. Bradley, 60, was scheduled to make his first court appearance at 11 a.m. Central time.
When the tractor-trailer was found early Sunday morning outside a Walmart store, packed with undocumented immigrants, law enforcement officials said eight of them had already died from heat exposure or asphyxiation and that many of the others were hospitalized in critical condition. The death toll rose to nine on Sunday afternoon, and to 10 on Monday morning.
In all, 39 people were found in the back of the truck.
In a statement included in the complaint, James Lara, a Homeland Security agent, said that Mr. Bradley, who does not own the truck, waived his right to remain silent and spoke to investigators. He told them that he “was unaware of the contents and/or cargo,” and was delivering it to a new owner.
After parking outside the Walmart, “he heard banging and shaking in the trailer,” Mr. Lara said. “Bradley said he went to open the doors and was surprised when he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people and knocked to the ground. Bradley said he then noticed bodies just lying on the floor like meat.”
“Bradley said he knew the trailer refrigeration system didn’t work and that the four vent holes were probably clogged up,” he added.
The authorities learned of the situation when a Walmart employee called the San Antonio police around midnight on Saturday to report “multiple people in need of a assistance,” and a suspicious truck in the parking lot, Mr. Lara said.
Smuggling migrants in big trucks — which an expert on border enforcement referred to as “mobile ovens” — is a common practice for human traffickers in the region. In 2003, 19 people died in a similar tragedy near Victoria, Tex.; the driver in that case, Tyrone Williams, was convicted on dozens of charges and sentenced to life in prison.