Five suspects have been arrested and a sixth is wanted in connection with a human-smuggling ring that left one illegal border crosser dead.
All of the suspects are facing homicide charges, Tim Gaffney, spokesman for the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, said in a news release.
The ring came to light on the afternoon of July 7, when deputies were called to the Bowlin Travel Center off Interstate 10 near Picacho Peak, about 45 miles northwest of Tucson in reference to suspicious activity involving a U-Haul truck.
“When the driver and front seat passenger opened the back end of the box truck, several subjects were inside and they appeared to be in medical distress,” Gaffney said. “They were falling out and staggering as they attempted to get out.”
Deputies found eight Hispanic men and women standing, sitting or lying near or inside the back of the truck, Gaffney said. They told deputies they were illegal immigrants who were picked up in Douglas. They had paid $5,000 apiece to be transported to Phoenix. Originally there were between 14 and 20 people in the back of the truck, they said.
During the drive, “many of the occupants became severely dehydrated and overheated due to the extreme heat and inhumane conditions in the locked U-Haul truck,” said Gaffney, who estimated the temperature inside the truck exceeded 180 degrees.
About a half-dozen of the immigrants ran into the desert after they were let out of the truck. U.S. Border Patrol agents found them.
Those who stayed behind were too ill to flee.
They had “medical conditions ranging from dehydration and fatigue to heat stroke causing vomiting, loss of bowel control and unconsciousness,” Gaffney said. Three of the immigrants — one of whom later died — were in critical condition and airlifted to a hospital. Five others were taken to hospitals by ambulance.
The driver of the U-Haul, Nathan Lamb, 25, and the passenger in the cab of the truck, his girlfriend, Elizabeth Kay, 25, both of Phoenix, fled into the desert with the illegal immigrants and were found by Border Patrol agents. They were booked into the Pinal County jail.
Initially the couple faced multiple charges of human smuggling, aggravated assault and endangerment. However, since the death of one of the immigrants from hyperthermia due to the high temperature in the truck, both face charges of murder, kidnapping and human smuggling.
“Both Lamb and Kay admitted to detectives they transported the illegal immigrants from Douglas and they were headed to Phoenix, Gaffney said. “While driving they heard pounding and banging from inside of the cargo area. They didn’t stop right away because they were afraid they would be seen. When they did stop, they saw how bad of shape some of the individuals were in and thought they were going to die.”
In total, 11 immigrants were taken into custody. Six of the injured were issued temporary papers to reside in the United States until the end of the trial in the smuggling case, Gaffney said. The other five immigrants were returned to Mexico, along with the body of the deceased immigrant.
Upon further investigation, detectives discovered the case “involved a large-scale human smuggling ring out of Mexico,” Gaffney said.
Since the U-Haul incident, three more suspects have been arrested. Yolanda Banda, 48, Gerad Punch, 28, and Mexican national Enrique Morales Velazquez, 53, all of whom were living in Phoenix, face charges of murder, kidnapping and human smuggling, Gaffney said.
A felony warrant has been issued for a sixth suspect in the case, 39-year-old Gerald Alan Turner of Phoenix. He is considered armed and dangerous. Anyone with information about him should call 911 or 88-CRIME.