TUCSON—A grisly accident in which a stolen truck carrying illegal immigrants plowed into vehicles waiting to turn—killing five people and critically injuring several others—shows the added risk violence-prone smugglers now pose to the public, authorities said.
“They seem to have more of a propensity for violent behavior and reckless behavior and any time you have that, it puts the public at increased danger and officers at increased danger,” Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Frank Valenzuela said Monday.
State and federal investigators have reconstructed Saturday’s accident near the east gate of Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista and interviewed illegal immigrants who had been jammed into a pickup truck.
The driver lost control when swerving on Arizona 90 at more than 90 mph, authorities said.
The truck slammed into nine vehicles lined up to turn onto an eastbound bypass from the highway after it swerved to avoid a tire deflation strip that Sierra Vista police officers deployed at an intersection, Valenzuela said.
The truck struck the raised center median, vaulted and landed on top of the first few cars, then rolled over the rest or pushed them into one another.
At least nine and possibly 11 people in the truck were among 15 people critically injured, with at least one on life support, Valenzuela said. A few people are believed to have fled the crash scene.
The dead included James H. Lee, 75, and Emilia Guthrie, 71, of Huachuca City, married only about six weeks; and three illegal immigrants from Mexico: Eric Sanchez-Dominguez, Maria Hernandez-Espinosa and Mauro Macedal-Hernandez. All were pronounced dead at the scene.
Investigators believe a second pickup also carrying illegal immigrants fled the area.
Authorities initially reported six deaths, but one accident victim who apparently went into cardiac arrest on the way to a hospital was resuscitated, said DPS Sgt. Brian Preston.
Valenzuela said investigators have not identified the driver but two others identified as being part of the smuggling operation were in custody.
The U.S. Attorney for Arizona filed a criminal complaint Monday charging Carlos Cortez and Jose Luis Zepeda-Cruz with conspiring to transport 28 to 30 illegal immigrants from Mexico, including 18 people loaded into the truck that crashed.
Zepeda-Cruz, 24, was accused of leading the group into the United States near Naco. Cortez, 29, was identified as a passenger in the pickup, one of two trucks involved in the smuggling operation.
Smugglers who formerly used their own or friends’ vehicles have turned to newer, better conditioned, high-speed stolen vehicles for their smuggling operations, according to Valenzuela.
He said that enables them to drive more recklessly and with an increased willingness to run from law enforcement officers.
“I think it is fairly indicative of the greater risk everybody who has to share the highway with these guys has to encounter,” Preston said. “What we see now with these professional (smuggling) organizations is they’re becoming more violent, more reckless, more desperate, high rates of speed.”
“The smugglers are definitely becoming more violent and more organized,” said Kat Rodriguez, coordinating organizer for the Arizona Border Rights Coalition.
She said smugglers view immigrants strictly as “a commodity and not a human being” and U.S. immigration policies have helped make smuggling so profitable.
Cochise County Sheriff Larry Devers said the greed of smugglers has “overcome their senses.”