US grand jury hands down five charges, including one that carries the death penalty, against James Matthew Bradley Jr who was allegedly behind a horror truck journey that saw 10 undocumented migrants suffocate to death.

James Matthew Bradley Jr is escorted from a prisoners van before appearing briefly in federal court, authorities found eight men dead in the back of his tractor trailer truck, in a still image from video taken in San Antonio, Texas, US, July 24, 2017.
James Matthew Bradley Jr is escorted from a prisoners van before appearing briefly in federal court, authorities found eight men dead in the back of his tractor trailer truck, in a still image from video taken in San Antonio, Texas, US, July 24, 2017. (Reuters)

The driver of a tractor-trailer packed with people illegally entering the United States from Mexico in an alleged human smuggling operation was indicted Wednesday on charges related to the deaths of 10 people inside.

James Matthew Bradley Jr was charged by a federal grand jury in San Antonio on five counts, including illegally transporting immigrants for financial gain, resulting in death, and a separate count of conspiracy to transport immigrants illegally, resulting in death.

Those charges carry the possibility of the death penalty.

A spokesman for the US Attorney's office in San Antonio declined to say Wednesday if prosecutors would pursue the death penalty.

One of Bradley's attorneys did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Bradley was also indicted on two counts related to illegally transporting immigrants resulting in serious bodily injury, and one count of firearm possession by a convicted felon. The indictment alleges Bradley, who pleaded guilty in 1997 to a felony domestic violence case in Colorado, was in possession of a .38-caliber pistol.

San Antonio police officers investigate the scene where eight people were found dead in a tractor-trailer loaded with at least 30 others outside a Walmart store in stifling summer heat in what police are calling a horrific human trafficking case on July 23, 2017 in San Antonio.
San Antonio police officers investigate the scene where eight people were found dead in a tractor-trailer loaded with at least 30 others outside a Walmart store in stifling summer heat in what police are calling a horrific human trafficking case on July 23, 2017 in San Antonio. (AP)

Crammed inside

At least 39 people were inside the trailer as it drove from the border city of Laredo to San Antonio, about 150 miles (240 kilometres) north. The trailer's refrigeration system was broken, and investigators said passengers struggled to breathe as the temperature rose to dangerous levels.

One witness said he heard people crying and asking for water.

At least 22 survivors have been released from the hospital and are being held in detention as potential witnesses against Bradley. Two survivors remained hospitalised as of Wednesday.

Four of the survivors testified before the grand jury, Michael McCrum, a San Antonio attorney appointed to represent them, said.

"They came to America wanting just to work, as they could not find a job in Mexico that could support their families. And yet, the circumstances of what happened brought them to this situation," McCrum said in an email. "They were asked to tell the truth about how they suffered, and they did."

Investigators have said they believe Bradley was part of a broader conspiracy funding and planning the smuggling operation, though they have not announced any additional arrests or charges.

According to a criminal complaint released in July, Bradley told investigators that the trailer had been sold and he was transporting it for his boss from Iowa to Brownsville, Texas. But said he had driven to Laredo and stopped twice there before driving back to San Antonio, in the opposite direction from Brownsville.

He denied knowing people were inside the trailer. After hearing banging and shaking, he opened the door and was "surprised when he was run over by 'Spanish' people and knocked to the ground," according to the criminal complaint.

The deceased

Most of the people known to have been on board were from Mexico. Others are believed to have fled from the truck after it stopped.

The US Attorney's office identified eight of the 10 people who died.

Seven were from Mexico: 27-year-old Ruben Hernandez Vargas; 21-year-old Osbaldo Rodriguez Cerda; 26-year-old Jorge Reyes Noveron; 36-year-old Jose Rodriguez Aspeitia; 37-year-old Benjamin Martinez Arredondo; 24-year-old Ricardo Martinez Esparza; and Mariano Lopez Cano, whose age is unknown. Another person, Frank Fuentes, was from Guatemala. A Guatemalan diplomat previously said that Fuentes had been deported and was trying to return to his family in Maryland.

Lopez Cano and Martinez Esparza died at an area hospital.

A continuing problem of human trafficking 

Human smuggling operations often linked to Mexican drug cartels are a problem for law-enforcement along the United States' southern border.

Border Patrol agents in West Texas found 20 people crammed in a semitrailer just this week, one day after police in the border city of Edinburg discovered 16 people inside another trailer.

Source: AP