PALMVIEW, Texas -- A 15-year-old South Texas boy charged with nine counts of murder after he crashed a minivan packed with illegal immigrants, killing nine of them, cried and expressed remorse before a judge Monday, police said.
The boy, who is not being identified because he is a juvenile, appeared at a probable cause hearing at a juvenile detention facility. He was also charged with 17 counts of smuggling of a person causing serious bodily injury or death, and one count of evading.
Border Patrol agents pulled over the van last Tuesday night about 10 miles west of McAllen. As it stopped, one person jumped from the vehicle and ran. When agents pursued him the van sped off. It crashed just a few blocks away scattering a parking lot with bodies, backpacks and water bottles. The driver escaped, but was arrested two days later at his home.
Palmview Police worked with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations to arrest six people suspected of involvement in the smuggling operation on charges related to harboring illegal immigrants. At least four of the six crash survivors were detained as material witnesses.
Through interviews with them they found the teen driver, said Palmview police Chief Chris Barrera.
"He wanted to come clean so he came out and gave us a statement," Barrera said. "He explained to us exactly what had happened, what he had done."
Palmview Detective Saul Uvalle, who attended the probable cause hearing, said the teen told the judge that if he didn't drive the van they were going to kill his family. Uvalle said the teen didn't say who "they" were. "He was very remorseful of what happened," Uvalle said.
State prosecutors can pursue the felony murder charges because the deaths occurred during the commission of a felony, in this case evading Border Patrol. A judge will eventually decide whether the boy will be tried as an adult.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra said he planned to petition a judge to certify the boy so he can be tried as an adult.
"I'm going to be as aggressive as the law allows," Guerra said.
According to a federal complaint filed last week, two suspects admitted after their arrests to participating in the smuggling of the illegal immigrants involved in the crash and those in the stash house. One said he was offered $40 per passenger to drive the van, but refused and instead put the 15-year-old in contact with the organization, the complaint says.
Guerra said that the adults involved must have understood the risks in getting a teenager with no driver's license to undertake the job.
"When you have that kind of a situation where some people say that's an accident, no, I'm sorry that's not an ordinary accident," Guerra said. "These are things that they know. That they can anticipate."
At a children's daycare center near where the crumpled van came to rest, passersby have created an impromptu memorial with dozens of candles, notes and religious icons. Lucy Moreno, 33, assistant director of the daycare, said Monday that the murder charges seemed too much for a juvenile.
As the parent of a 14-year-old, Moreno said she thought the boy "doesn't have the maturity to think about how he was putting lives at risk."