Federal authorities filed a criminal charge Tuesday against the driver of a sport utility vehicle that crashed in southeastern Utah, killing eight illegal immigrants packed inside.
Rigoberto Salas-Lopez, 30, was charged with one count of transporting illegal immigrants resulting in death. Eight of the 14 people in the Chevy Suburban died after it rolled several times on U.S. 191 a few hours before dawn Monday.
Authorities determined that the driver and passengers were from Guatemala and Mexico. Salas-Lopez was arrested after fleeing into the desert after the crash in the Four Corners area of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.
He said he was given the vehicle by a man in Phoenix who offered him $1,000 to drive the people to St. Louis from Phoenix, according to an affidavit by Timothy Chard, an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Six killed, five injured
"Salas also stated that he knew the individuals in the vehicle were from Mexico and Guatemala and that they were in the United States illegally," Chard wrote.
Six men and two women were killed. Four men and one woman were injured and taken to hospitals.
Some survivors told agents that Salas-Lopez was fondling a woman before the crash -- accounts that contradict his claim that he was trying to avoid hitting an animal.
"According to interviews by ICE that potentially was not the case," said Lt. Todd Peterson of the Utah Highway Patrol. "The driver was involved in fondling or groping a female in the vehicle and that was the potential reason for the distracted driving."
But Peterson added that some survivors did mention a horse or some other animal in the road.
Salas-Lopez will appear Wednesday in federal court in Salt Lake City. If convicted, the possible penalties range from prison to a death sentence.
Popular route for illegal immigrants
The highways and back roads of southeastern Utah are popular corridors to move illegal immigrants and drugs, said Peterson, who is the police agency's area lieutenant for San Juan and Grand counties.
"It's a daily occurrence," he said.
"We are limited as to what our response can be when we encounter these individuals. Our local jails and correctional facilities cannot house the number of people we're dealing with and ICE has limited resources," Peterson said. "It's a Catch-22 situation."
He said he oversees eight troopers and sergeants for a two-county area that includes 650 miles of state roads.
On Oct. 11, 2005, a van loaded with 16 people, all but one in the U.S. illegally, rolled on U.S. 191 near Moab in Grand County, killing two. The driver was sentenced to two years in federal prison.