NEWS

Driver Charged After Several Immigrants Die In Hot Truck

This isn't the first tragic truck smuggling.

07/24/2017 13:30 EDT | Updated 07/24/2017 17:51 EDT

SAN ANTONIO — The small, family-owned Iowa trucking company linked to the deadly case of immigrant smuggling in Texas has a history of safety and tax violations and financial problems, public records show.

Pyle Transportation Inc. failed to pay federal employment and trucking taxes for years, faced lawsuits from Iowa labour regulators over unpaid wages owed to drivers and has been ordered to pay major penalties for violations of federal safety rules, records show. The IRS and others who say the company owes them money have often found no assets available to garnish.

The company and its driver insist they know nothing about how dozens of immigrants became packed inside the trailer of its 18-wheeler, which was found parked in the searing heat outside a San Antonio Walmart over the weekend. Ten of those passengers died and more than 15 others were hospitalized with extreme dehydration, with one passenger telling investigators people were taking turns breathing from a hole inside the trailer.

Pyle Transportation owner Brian Pyle denied knowledge of any human smuggling and expressed shock and bewilderment over how so many people could have been crammed into a trailer that had his name on it.

SUZANNE CORDEIRO via Getty Images
A truck trailer was found in this Walmart parking lot holding eight deceased undocumented immigrants, early Sunday morning in San Antonio, Texas.

"I'm absolutely sorry it happened. I really am. It's shocking,'' Pyle said outside the company's ramshackle office near the tiny downtown of Schaller, Iowa, a village of 750 in the rural northwestern part of the state.

He said he had reached a deal to sell the truck to a person in Mexico and hired one of the company's former drivers, James Matthew Bradley Jr. of Clearwater, Fla., as an independent contractor to drive the trailer to a drop-off point in the border city of Brownsville, Texas.

I'm absolutely sorry it happened. I really am. It's shocking.Brian Pyle

Pyle showed a reporter a copy of what he said was a bill of sale, dated May 10, which contained no sales price and only the name Orozco. Pyle declined to identify the purchaser or say where in Brownsville the trailer was to be delivered. The county treasurer's office declined to say whether paperwork transferring the truck's title had been filed.

Bradley was charged Monday with transporting immigrants who were in the United States illegally, resulting in the deaths. Bradley told investigators that he was transporting the trailer for his boss from Iowa to Brownsville, and made some stops along the way. He said he was unaware people were inside until he parked and got out to urinate.

The driver claimed he was not given a delivery time or address.

SUZANNE CORDEIRO via Getty Images
Injured undocumented immigrants were transported to San Antonio University Hospital on Sunday after being found in a truck.

He told authorities that he had stopped in Laredo, Texas — which would have been out of his way if he were travelling directly to Brownsville — to get the truck washed and detailed before heading back 240 kilometres north to San Antonio. From there, he would have had to drive 440 kilometres south again to get to Brownsville.

Pyle, 34, said there was no reason for the driver to stop in Laredo and San Antonio. He refused to discuss his company's prior legal problems, saying the focus should be on issues surrounding the deaths.

"It should be about what happened in Texas and not my company,'' he said.

Company repeatedly violates rules

Federal records show the company claims 15 drivers and 18 trucks that haul fresh produce, meat, food, paper products and other freight. The company reported logging 830,000 miles in 2013, the latest year for which figures were available. The company and its drivers have repeatedly been cited for safety, vehicle maintenance and record-keeping violations, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration data.

Many of the violations have been tied to truckers who didn't get enough rest between shifts — or who kept false reports that suggested they did. Just last month, the company was penalized more than $50,000 over false reports of drivers' work and rest activities. In 2015, it faced a $90,000 penalty for the same infraction.

SUZANNE CORDEIRO via Getty Images
A truck trailer was found in this Walmart parking lot holding eight deceased undocumented immigrants, early Sunday morning in San Antonio, Texas.

Since Jan. 1, Pyle Transportation drivers have been accused of driving too many hours, failing to keep accurate records, carrying too much weight, having defective brakes, having an inoperative turn signal and consuming alcohol before driving, among more than 100 violations recorded during roadside inspections. At least seven resulted in the trucks being placed out-of-service.

The Pyle family has been involved in the trucking business for decades but Pyle Transportation was formed in 2006.

In a legal action filed in 2015, the federal government said the company failed to pay more than $150,000 in employment, insurance and heavy highway vehicle use taxes between 2009 and 2012. The government said that two of the family's previous trucking firms had significant unpaid tax liabilities when they were shuttered and transferred their operations and customers to Pyle Transportation.

The government said the IRS has found that the company "has no significant assets'' from which it could collect the taxes through foreclosure or garnishment. A judge ordered the company to pay all outstanding liabilities and face strict IRS monitoring for five years in which the company must attest monthly that required tax deposits were made.

The Iowa Labor Commissioner has gone to court twice to collect unpaid wages owed to drivers in recent years. One case was dropped after the company made a payment; in the other, an attempt to garnish the money failed when a bank said its checking account had "less than zero balance'' in October 2016. Just last week, a different bank reported that the company's account was "overdrawn'' to a vendor who won a small claims judgment for unpaid services.

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Foley reported from Iowa City.