Man receives 14 years in prison

Gabe Semenza

June 7, 2010 at 1:07 a.m.

A federal judge on Monday sentenced the last remaining defendant linked to the nation's worst botched human smuggling attempt.

Octavio Torres-Ortega, a 44-year-old Mexican national, will spend 14 years in prison, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston announced.

Torres-Ortega is the last of a dozen people sentenced for their roles in the May 2003 smuggling attempt, which ended in Victoria.

Smugglers in Harlingen stuffed 74 illegal immigrants into a sealed tractor-trailer. By the time the tractor-trailer reached Victoria, 17 immigrants - including a 5-year-old boy - died of dehydration, suffocation and hyperthermia. Later, two more died of related injuries.

"I'm just glad it's over," said Eloy Garcia, a former clerk who was on duty when a driver ditched the trailer near a Victoria store. "Those smugglers deserve to be in jail. I'm sure glad they caught all of them."

Torres-Ortega received his sentence seven years after the crime because he fled to Mexico following the discovery of the bodies, said Angela Dodge, a U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman.

The Unites States sought Torres-Ortega's extradition in October 2007, and Mexico obliged. A jury convicted him in April 2008 of conspiring to harbor and transport illegal immigrants, an act that resulted in death.

Legal maneuvering and trial delays pushed his sentencing back until now.

Torres-Ortega apologized Monday for the deadly smuggling attempt, according to the Associated Press.

"While the lives lost can never be regained, the unwavering commitment of the federal, state and local law enforcement agents and officers who investigated this case ... have seen justice served on their behalf," José Angel Moreno, a U.S. attorney, said in a press release.

Images of the tragedy, which circulated among international news outlets for months, remain forever tied to Victoria.

Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor was at the scene of the 2003 crime. When he travels outside Texas, he is frequently asked about the tragedy, he said.

"We should never forget these things happen," O'Connor said. "We must remind ourselves about the fragile aspect of human life."

Donna Odem-Dollins, a Victoria Fire Department captain, was one of the first people inside the trailer. She remembers the gruesome details.

"It's something that will never be forgotten - not by those who were there, those who saw it, those who climbed inside the trailer," she said. "It was the most overwhelming call I ever witnessed."

U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa Gilmore sentenced Torres-Ortega to five years of supervision after release from his 14-year prison term.

Vance Riley, Victoria's fire chief, said he hopes the end of this historic case opens a new chapter for all involved.

"We hope it brings some closure for the families of all the victims and helps the healing process for everyone to move forward," Riley said.



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