Driver charged in fatal Utah SUV crash makes first court appearance
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) ” Survivors of a van crash that killed eight in southeastern Utah say they had agreed to pay hundreds of dollars and endured dangerous situations in hopes of working in the United States.
From their beds at San Juan Hospital in Monticello, Andres Rodriguez, 29, and Ortez Noe Gonzalez, 26, told The Salt Lake Tribune they were making the journey through the desert to find jobs and send money back to their families in Siltepec, in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
Rodriguez and Gonzalez said through an interpreter they departed Siltepec on March 28 with 13 other people from the town. After arriving in northern Mexico, they carried water, canned food and flour tortillas to survive the four-day walk through the desert.
On the first night, Rodriguez and Gonzalez said, they met a man in the desert who guided them to a waiting car with a driver who took them to a home in Phoenix.
It was there that they agreed on prices to be paid by their families to a smuggler once they reached their destinations. Gonzalez’ family was to pay $800 once he got to Ohio to work at a candy manufacturing plant. Rodriguez agreed his family would pay $1,800 for his trip to Alabama, where he had worked before in a restaurant, the Tribune reported.
On Sunday, Rodriguez and Gonzalez joined 12 other people in a gray 2001 Chevrolet Suburban registered to a man from Mesa, Ariz.
Early Monday morning the vehicle rolled several times on U.S. 191 near Bluff, Utah, in the Four Corners area of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. Six men and two women died. Rodriguez, Gonzalez and three others were hurt. Federal court papers indicate all of them are believed to be from Guatemala or Mexico and in the U.S. illegally.
Rigoberto Salas-Lopez, 30, the driver of the vehicle, fled the scene and was found hiding in the desert.
Salas-Lopez told investigators he had been paid $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.
Salas-Lopez made his initial appearance in court Wednesday on a charge of transporting illegal immigrants resulting in death. He was read his rights and assigned a federal public defender, Viviana Ramirez. Magistrate Judge David Nuffer set a May 2 preliminary hearing in the case and an arraignment for May 3, both before Magistrate Judge Brooke C. Wells.
If convicted, the possible penalties range from prison to a death sentence.
Salas-Lopez, a Guatemalan national, is also believed to be in the country illegally, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Kennedy after Wednesday’s hearing.
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Imagine Glenwood and The City of Glenwood Springs is slated to host a virtual town hall at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 11.