The Texas Highway Tragedy: Where the Dead Have No Names

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Angeli Wright / The Victoria Advocate / AP

The pickup truck involved in a crash that killed 15 people is seen in Goliad, Texas, on July 22, 2012. Authorities say the truck was overloaded with passengers when it veered off a highway and crashed into trees

When tragedy strikes, the names and faces of the victims quickly emerge to become icons of mourning, as they did in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., movie-theater shooting. But if the catastrophe occurs in the shadow world of undocumented immigrants, images blur, life stories are fogged and identities abandoned. Just putting a name to a face can be a challenge for the most experienced investigator.

Texas and federal law enforcement and border authorities are now trying to pull together the strands of 23 lives, including 15 that ended, following a horrific traffic accident involving a Ford F250 pickup truck on July 22 in the rolling countryside of southeastern Texas, near Goliad, a small town that has seen similar tragedies. If the past is any indicator, it could take weeks, if not months, to establish the identities of the victims.

"In cases like this, some don't have a proper ID," says deputy special agent Sean McElroy, the special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Houston who is working the case. "Some don't have any ID at all, and in some cases, the smugglers control their identification." The victims were essentially hostages. His agency, along with local and state law enforcement, is now engaged in identifying the dead and pursuing the smuggling operation that controlled their fate, a dual challenge in the murky world of human trafficking.

In that realm of modern slavery, many set off from remote villages and head north, entering a complex web of smuggling operations that often evolves into a hostage trap once they cross the border, McElroy says. Many are held in stash houses where their movements, diet and hygiene are controlled by the smugglers; they are not moved until payment is made or promised by relatives or friends at a final destination. Then they are often taken by foot through a punishing landscape where temperatures can reach triple digits, water is scarce and snakes and insects abound. Others are packed in trailer rigs and hauled north, while still more, like the Ford F250 passengers, are stuffed in trucks that run the gauntlet through the night.

Dashing down a dark patch of U.S. Highway 59, where the speed limit is already a high 75 m.p.h., the truck hurtled into two trees. It had a shredded right front tire, which is likely to have pulled the vehicle off track, slamming it into the trees and scattering the bodies across the highway and ditch. Only one person aboard had an ID — a driver's license from the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas that belonged to the 22-year-old driver, Ricardo Mendoza-Pineda, who died in the crash. Given privacy laws and the need to hold some information close in the investigation, details about the victims are limited, but as they search for the facts, authorities believe the death rate could climb. One seasoned state trooper called it the worst accident he had ever seen.

Adrian Fulton, a Goliad mortuary director, is dealing with a steady number of anguished requests from distraught callers for information about the bodies that rest in his mortuary. "One person called from El Salvador and said he hadn't heard from his brother for three months and maybe he was one of the men in the truck," Fulton says. Some desperate potential relatives have arrived at the mortuary and begged to see the bodies. "They think I am being insensitive, but I can't just show them everyone," he says. "It's overwhelming." Investigators press relatives for any distinguishing marks, tattoos or scars that might help in the identification process, says Sergeant Ryan Christian, a Texas state trooper.

The investigation ranges from the achingly personal to the global. Fulton has also fielded calls from Honduras, but he has to tell the people he needs photographs to help them in their search. "Some of these people live in villages, small towns. They don't have e-mail, so they can't send me a photo. I have to wait for a FedEx or whatever," he says. The Department of Homeland Security maintains 71 offices in 47 countries, McElroy says, and in other cases federal agents have driven miles into the countryside to remote villages to show families photographs of victims. The agency also relies on good relationships with foreign consulates on U.S. soil to help move an investigation like this along. Two of the passengers, a 27-year-old man and a 22-year-old woman, have been identified as Guatemalans, the government of Guatemala confirmed on Tuesday.

The passengers' sparse personal effects, perhaps a toothbrush, toothpaste and a change of underwear, give few clues to their identity. Investigators will turn to sophisticated resources and databases, from fingerprints to DNA, in order to establish identities. But even the age of the victims will not be easy to ascertain. Two young girls — Fulton guessed they are ages 8 to 10 and 12 to 13 — died at the scene. A third possible juvenile died later, and another is still hospitalized. But given the slight stature of some of the victims, Fulton says, it is difficult to accurately determine an age. Among the survivors, seven of the nine are in critical condition and can offer little information at this point about their deceased companions. Authorities will not comment on what, if anything, they have learned from the other two. Fulton says fingerprint cross-checks with an ICE database offered no leads.

The victims of the Goliad wreck are not alone in their anonymity but are part of a steady parade. On July 18, three bodies were found in the brush on a ranch outside of Falfurrias in South Texas, 75 miles north of the border. On Monday, a couple from Guatemala and a Mexican national were rescued on another ranch in the area, the woman suffering from dehydration. And on that same day, 11 undocumented immigrants were found stuffed in a hidden compartment in a tractor-trailer rig at a Falfurrias border checkpoint. So far this year, just in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas, federal agents have rescued 240 illegals and found the remains of 80 people.

Fulton, the mortuary director, recalls that it took three months to finally identify all the victims he helped remove from a tractor-trailer rig in 2003. That tragedy cost the lives of 19 undocumented workers who were discovered suffocated inside the abandoned rig. The incident took place not far from the Goliad accident scene. The people trapped inside had clawed at the walls inside the trailer as temperatures reached 173 degrees. Agent McElroy says investigators used old-fashioned police legwork to help identify the victims, including crumpled telephone numbers scratched on bits of paper and pocket trash. The driver, Tyrone Williams, was resentenced to 30 years in prison in 2011, following his successful appeal of the multiple life sentences without parole he received at his 2005 trial.

U.S. Highway 59 cuts from southwest to northeast across the scrubby ranchland of South Texas, running from Laredo to Houston, a 300-mile stretch of highway named in honor of the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who had a foot in the farmland of the Rio Grande Valley and another in the boardrooms of Houston. Along the way, the harsh ranchland gives way to a more bucolic landscape of fields and farms, live oak groves and wildflowers, and past some of the state's most iconic historical sites. In Goliad, some 160 miles from the border, is the historic Presidio la Bahia, a picturesque Spanish garrison and mission that was founded in 1749 on the banks of the San Antonio River. This was the birthplace of General Ignacio Zaragoza, hero of the Battle of Puebla against the French in 1862, now celebrated as Cinco de Mayo. Goliad is said to be an anagram of the word Hidalgo (with a silent h) and named in honor of the founding patriot of an independent Mexico, Padre Miguel Hidalgo.

Whether the occupants of the Ford F250 knew they were passing through a historic area is unknown. They likely couldn't see their surroundings. Some were squeezed into the extended cab, while the rest blanketed the truck bed like sardines in a can. And until the detective work is productive, they will be among the nameless dead on a highway that has seen too much tragedy.