A Houston police officer chasing routine calls Sunday afternoon saved 12 people who were being smuggled inside of a locked cargo truck where the temperature reached 100 degrees, authorities said Monday.
After canvassing a strip mall’s parking lot, the patrol officer heard the dozen trapped people – 10 men, one woman and a 16-year-old girl – banging on the walls of the unventilated truck trying to attract someone’s attention to let them out.
The officer managed to remove the lock in time and save the people who had been trapped inside for about 12 hours with no food and a dwindling water supply.
“Thirty more minutes and this could have been a dozen homicide cases,” said Tom Berg, Harris County first assistant district attorney.
Three people are now in jail after officers rescued the victims from the locked cargo bay of a box truck parked in west Houston.
The officer, identified as Chris Meade, first discovered the Penske rental truck parked at a strip center at 7636 Harwin, off the Westpark Tollway, said JoAnne Musick, a county prosecutor for sex crimes and human trafficking.
According to Houston police and prosecutors, the 12 people inside the truck were undocumented and paid to be smuggled into the U.S. from various Latin American countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Greg Palmore.
Houston police and the District Attorney’s Office held a news conference at the Criminal Justice Center to commend Meade for his heroics and alertness in responding to such a potentially deadly situation.
The officer deferred all questions to his superiors as he stood silent and stoic in his uniform.
Authorities speaking on his behalf said that Meade noticed “something was off about the box truck.” Meade was on the heels of another routine call when the cargo truck and activity around it caught his attention.
“Things just did not appear correct to him,” Musick said. “He was already on alert. As he entered the parking lot, there was some activity afoot and this drew his attention even more to the area.”
He noticed padlocks on the truck but no signs of a driver even though the engine was still warm, Musick said.
Simply, Meade was drawn to the rental truck “because it was sitting in a site where it shouldn’t have been,” she said.
The three suspected culprits – Priscila Perez Beltran, 21; Nelson Cortes Garcia, 27; and Adela Alvarez, 26 – have each been charged with two counts of human smuggling likely to cause injury or death and one count of human smuggling involving a minor.
They were arrested by Meade and other officers as they attempted to flee the scene.
Caught on cameras
Musick said surveillance cameras show the three suspects entering and exiting the truck throughout the afternoon.
They face charges including smuggling of persons. They were elevated from a 3rd to a 2nd degree charge because the case involves a minor and because the victims was placed in serious harm, Musick said.
If convicted, they face two to 20 years in prison.
According to the DA’s office, the suspects have no criminal records, but the investigation into each of their backgrounds is in the beginning stages, they added.
The alleged smugglers are suspected of having entered the country without documentation, Palmore added.
Neither Beltran, Cortes Garcia nor Alvarez are U.S. citizens, according to court documents. They are each being held on a $300,000 bail and are due to appear in court Tuesday.
The investigation remains active and authorities said they won’t release additional information to avoid any potential suspects fleeing country.
Mary Magness with the Department of Homeland Security said the 12 victims may be detained until a trial is held. She said each of the victims could serve as material witnesses as the investigation unfolds.
“Human trafficking and human smuggling are a big deal in the city of Houston,” said Lt. Jessica Anderson, of HPD’s human trafficking unit. “Officer Meade did a fantastic job of being aware of his surroundings … thereby saving 12 lives.”