James Matthew Bradley Jr., 61, pleaded Monday in federal court in San Antonio to one conspiracy count and a count of transporting the immigrants resulting in death. He faces up to life imprisonment when he's sentenced on Jan. 22.
The Clearwater, Florida, man could have faced the death penalty had he gone to trial.
Authorities say at least 39 immigrants, most of them Mexicans, were packed into the sweltering trailer found by San Antonio police last July in a Walmart parking lot, although court records show that surviving immigrants estimated that between 70 and 180 to 200 people were carried in the trailer during the transport. The truck's refrigeration system wasn't working, and investigators say passengers had difficulty breathing as temperatures climbed.
Temperatures in San Antonio topped at 101 degrees that day.
A co-defendant, Pedro Silva Segura, 47, still faces two conspiracy counts, including one of conspiracy to transport and harbor undocumented immigrants for financial gain resulting in death. The Laredo, Texas, man also is charged with two counts of transporting undocumented immigrants resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy. He remains in custody in Laredo without bond awaiting transfer to San Antonio. No trial date has been set.
"Today's admission of guilt by Mr. Bradley helps to close the door on one of the conspirators responsible for causing the tragic loss of life and wreaking havoc on those who survived this horrific incident," said Shane Folden, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.
Bradley initially had denied knowing anyone was inside the trailer, telling investigators that the trailer had been sold and he was transporting it for his boss from Iowa to Brownsville, Texas. But he said he had driven to Laredo, Texas, and stopped twice there before driving back to San Antonio, in the opposite direction from Brownsville.
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