Defendants plead guilty in immigrant smuggling case

By JUAN A. LOZANO, Associated Press Writer

HOUSTON (AP) - A man and an Ohio woman pleaded guilty Monday to participating in a smuggling attempt that left 19 illegal immigrants dead last year in South Texas.

As part of a plea agreement, Abelardo Flores, 34, and Fatima Holloway, 29, of Cleveland, agreed to cooperate with officials and provide "substantial assistance in the prosecution of other individuals" connected to the case, said assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Rodriguez.

Flores and Holloway both pleaded guilty to conspiracy to conceal and transport illegal immigrants for the purpose of private financial gain in an operation that resulted in serious injury or death. Each was facing 58 counts of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants.

Prosecutors said Flores, who is in jail, recruited a New York man, Tyrone Williams, paid him $7,500 to drive the truck and was present when the illegal immigrants were loaded in the trailer in Harlingen.

Holloway was accused of being in the tractor-trailer truck driven by Williams last May and lying at a South Texas border patrol checkpoint when she told authorities there the trailer was empty. She is currently free on $100,000 bond.

The trailer, however, was carrying more than 70 illegal immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic.

They were being smuggled from the Rio Grande Valley to Houston when they began succumbing to the stifling heat.

The trailer was abandoned at a truck stop in Victoria, 100 miles southwest of Houston, in the early morning hours of May 14.

Seventeen immigrants were found dead inside the trailer and two others later died. The victims, including a 5-year-old Mexican boy, died from dehydration, hyperthermia and suffocation, in what's been called the nation's deadliest smuggling attempt.

Flores and Holloway each could receive up to life in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, although under the plea agreement prosecutors said they would recommend lesser punishments to U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore, who set sentencing for July 12.

Attorneys said the sentencing could be delayed if the pair were needed to testify at trials related to the smuggling case.

"This case is a tragic case because of the number of lives that were lost and the families who have suffered. Miss Holloway simply is trying to do what she believes is right at this time," Robert Fickman, Holloway's attorney, said of his client, who cried during Monday's court hearing.

"He's remorseful and he's cooperating fully with authorities," said Eric Sunde, Flores' lawyer.

Fourteen people were indicted last year on various charges of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. Nine were arrested, and five remain fugitives from U.S officials. Last month, Mexican authorities arrested one of these five fugitives, Victor Rodriguez, 57, and he remains in their custody.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)