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Two guilty in fatal smuggling attempt

HOUSTON – Two men were convicted Thursday for their roles in the nation’s deadliest human smuggling attempt – a journey that ended in the deaths of 19 illegal immigrants crammed in a sweltering tractor-trailer.

Victor Jesus Rodriguez and Fredy Giovanni Garcia-Tobar each faced 58 identical counts. They were found guilty of the most serious charge, conspiracy, and 19 counts of aiding in the transport of immigrants that results in death.

They could face life in prison when sentenced in March.

“Clearly the jury has done its work,” said U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby. “We will continue our efforts to finish the prosecution of this matter.”

Mervyn Mosbacker, one of Garcia-Tobar’s attorneys, said he was disappointed.

“It’s not fair,” Selvin Garcia, Garcia-Tobar’s brother, said after the verdict was read. “There was not enough evidence on my brother.”

Jerome Godinich, one of Rodriguez’s attorneys, said he will review the verdict, but won’t consider an appeal until after sentencing.

Garcia-Tobar was found guilty of 39 counts, including aiding in the transport of immigrants in which serious injury to a person resulted. He was acquitted on 19 counts of hiding and harboring illegal immigrants.

Rodriguez was convicted of 42 counts, but acquitted on seven of the harboring counts and nine other transporting counts.

Federal prosecutors had accused the defendants of being members of a smuggling ring that stuffed a hot, airless tractor-trailer with more than 70 illegal immigrants and tried to transport them from South Texas to Houston in May 2003.

The trailer was abandoned at a truck stop near Victoria, about 100 miles southwest of Houston, after the immigrants began succumbing to the heat, estimated at 173 degrees. Seventeen immigrants were found dead inside the trailer. Two died later.

Garcia-Tobar, 25, from Guatemala, was accused of helping transport them to loading sites and helping recruit truckers to haul them. Rodriguez, 38, was accused of picking up several immigrants.

The jury reached its verdict on its fifth day of deliberations. Afterward, Judge Vanessa Gilmore asked jurors not to speak to the media because other trials in the case are pending. Panelists were taken out a back way of the courthouse through a service elevator.

The trial was the first stemming from the smuggling ring. Of the 14 defendants indicted, five have pleaded guilty.

Tyrone Williams of Schenectady, N.Y., accused of driving and abandoning the trailer, is the only defendant who could face the death penalty if convicted. His trial is set for Jan. 5.


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