A Texas man pleaded guilty on Tuesday to attempting to smuggle two men from Mexico into the country in a flag-draped coffin, a crime that federal prosecutors said had been uncovered by a couple of U.S. Border Patrol employees who happened to be military veterans and sensed that something was amiss.
The man, Zachary Taylor Blood, 33, of Galveston, arrived at a Border Patrol immigration checkpoint in a gray Dodge Caravan about noon on Oct. 26 near Encino, Texas, about 60 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a criminal complaint.
When asked by an agent what he was hauling in the van, Mr. Blood said, “Dead guy, Navy guy,” according to the complaint.
The agent, who is a military veteran, inspected the van and “immediately noticed a rusty and dented coffin” and saw that an American flag had been “crudely taped” onto the coffin, reinforced with clear packaging tape and a zip tie on a corner, the complaint said.
A dog handler, who is also a veteran, was asked to inspect the van, and upon noticing the tape and condition of the coffin, he “knew this was not standard protocol for funeral procession of a military veteran,” the complaint said.
During a further inspection, agents found two men — both very much alive — inside the coffin, and the men admitted to being in the United States illegally, according to the complaint.
One of the men found in the coffin told the authorities that he had agreed to pay a total of $6,000 to reach San Antonio, according to the complaint. He said that he had already paid $2,000 to cross the Rio Grande.
The man said he had been joined in the coffin by his cousin, according to the complaint. He said that while they were inside the coffin, they had been able to open it only slightly and that it had been hot and hard to breathe inside, the complaint said. The two men were held as material witnesses.
Simon Purnell, a lawyer representing Mr. Blood, said that while smuggling cases are “extremely common” in the Southern District of Texas, “I have never encountered this method to smuggle aliens in the past.”
The methods involved in smuggling people across the U.S.-Mexico border vary, Mr. Purnell said. Sometimes it is one person and a driver in a car; other times dozens of people are crammed into tractor-trailers, he said.
Last year, at least 10 people died after a van carrying more than two dozen passengers believed to be migrants crashed in South Texas. In 2017, nearly 30 people were hospitalized, and 10 died, after they were found in a sweltering tractor-trailer in Texas.
“There are also cases where aliens have hidden themselves in vehicles unbeknownst to the driver,” Mr. Purnell said.
Mr. Blood was arrested on Oct. 26 and has been in custody since, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas. He could face up to five years in a federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 when he is sentenced on May 11 in U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi, Texas, prosecutors said.
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday night.