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DPS trooper airlifted with gunshot injury; tanker trailer held 62 immigrants
An ongoing crisis of human smuggling in South Texas was brought home to Cotulla residents late Friday, March 11, when gunfire erupted on a quiet street after the driver of a freight truck packed with undocumented immigrants took aim at officers and crashed the rig through a gauntlet of interceptors.
Among the injured was a trooper of the Texas Department of Public Safety Highway Patrol, who sustained a gunshot wound in the firefight and required airlifting to San Antonio from Frio Regional Hospital in Pearsall. His identity has been withheld during the course of the ongoing investigation.
The driver, who has been identified by the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office as Joe Torres of Dilley, was shot by officers during the exchange and airlifted from the Cotulla La Salle County Airport after being treated by La Salle medics.
Emergency responders discovered after the tanker truck had crashed that it contained 62 undocumented immigrants, the majority of whom were young adult and adolescent males.
There have been no reports of serious injury to the passengers. All were remanded into the custody of the US Border Patrol after being extracted through a filler hatch in the top of the tanker trailer.
Preliminary reports on the case from the sheriff’s office indicate authorities were first alerted to the possibility of a human smuggling operation when the tanker driver evaded Border Patrol agents at a checkpoint on Hwy 83, traveling north from Laredo, shortly after 10 p.m. Friday. Agents followed the vehicle through Dimmit County and notified the Highway Patrol and sheriff’s deputies in Dimmit and La Salle counties when the suspect steered east on FM 133 between Catarina and Artesia Wells.
“It became apparent that the driver was heading for IH-35 at that point,” La Salle County Sheriff Anthony Zertuche said of the unfolding incident, adding that officers were unaware at the time how many undocumented immigrants had been packed into the tanker’s fuel-barrel trailer. “There were officers waiting to intercept him before he reached the interstate, and tire-deflating spike strips were deployed.”
The vehicle sustained damage to several of its tires when the driver plowed through the DPS roadblock at the IH-35 intersection in Artesia Wells, the sheriff said.
La Salle County deputies and Highway Patrol troopers pursued the tanker on the interstate as far as Cotulla, where La Salle Capt. Elvira Gonzales had established a roadblock to prevent the suspect from driving into town, the sheriff said.
“The suspect was driving extremely recklessly and went over the median to get off the highway,” Zertuche added. “By now he had officers from several agencies in pursuit. We had to try to prevent him from endangering the public in our neighborhoods.”
The vehicle traveled north over the Nueces River and the driver steered onto Baylor Street, the sheriff said.
“He blew right through several intersections without any regard for other motorists or pedestrians,” Sheriff Zertuche said. “He was running on his rims up Baylor, and he made it as far as the intersection with Medina Street, but then he turned again.”
Officers pursued the tanker on FM 468, then south on Crockett Street to Cherokee, and from there to Tilden Street.
The tanker struck a Highway Patrol unit at the intersection of Tejas Avenue and Tilden Street, according to the report, and began traveling back towards a residential neighborhood.
“That’s when gunshots were heard,” the sheriff said. “We are investigating whether the driver began shooting at officers there.
“At one point, the vehicle appeared to slow and stop, then reverse, but then the driver accelerated up a gradient at the edge of Tilden Street and proceeded to the intersection with Magnolia Avenue,” Zertuche said. “At that scene, he narrowly missed striking Cpl. Jose Avila, and the DPS troopers began to engage him.”
Deputies and state troopers exchanged fire with the driver, eventually riddling the truck tires, cab rear wall, side windows and windscreen with bullets.
The vehicle crashed into a street sign at the Magnolia intersection and came to rest against a power line pole in the front yard of a home after colliding with a county deputy’s Charger interceptor and a DPS patrol vehicle.
“Highway Patrol, county deputies and Border Patrol agents removed the suspect from the cab through the passenger-side door,” the sheriff said. “That was when it became apparent that the driver had sustained a gunshot wound.”
The suspect faces charges ranging from 62 counts of third-degree felony human smuggling to traffic violations and offenses related to the endangerment of the public and officers during the pursuit as well as his endangerment of the passengers in his trailer.
The investigation now underway by the Texas Rangers will help determine whether Torres is to face enhanced felony smuggling charges because of his use of a firearm and whether he will be prosecuted for the attempted capital murder of at least one peace officer.
Torres remained in DPS custody at a San Antonio hospital as of Monday.
The injured trooper has been listed in stable condition and is expected to make a full recovery from the gunshot wound, according to the sheriff’s office.
Texas Rangers have declined to issue further comment on the investigation.
“We continue to do all that we can in this crisis of human smuggling to protect the safety of our county residents,” Sheriff Zertuche said this week. “In this case, the suspect’s behavior was extreme, and it was potentially deadly. He had to be stopped, and the Highway Patrol troopers, county deputies and USBP agents who intercepted him deserve credit for their persistence and their willingness to put their lives on the line for the sake of the people of La Salle County.”