No Honest Players Among Human Smugglers

Illegal immigrants are subject to pain and death at the hands of their "rescuers" if they don't pay up in full

It was just days after New Year's 2007 when Luis took Miguel to his house, where four other migrants hoping to get across the border were waiting for the guide to show up. The coyote was a Hispanic man who went by the name "El Negro." He loaded the migrants into his van and set out for the riverbank. There, the group crouched by the Rio Grande for more than an hour before making their move.

Just after Miguel and the others rushed across the water into the United States, border patrol agents spotted them and began the chase. The six men scattered. Two migrants disappeared for good, but Miguel, El Negro and two others regrouped and began walking toward Houston.

After eight hours, the men reached a train station and again, Miguel found himself stowing away on a freight train. An hour later, they hopped off at mile marker 58 and El Negro used a cell phone to call for a ride. Miguel spent his first night in the United States sleeping in a dirt bed in the nearby brush.

Immigrant smugglers held Elmer hostage for three days before torturing him with a hammer and iron.
Immigrant smugglers held Elmer hostage for three days before torturing him with a hammer and iron.
Jurors during the trial saw pictures of Elmer's wounds from being beaten by smugglers.
Jurors during the trial saw pictures of Elmer's wounds from being beaten by smugglers.

The next afternoon, Spezzia and two others showed up in a black Ford Expedition. Miguel and his traveling companions climbed in. He and the two other immigrants lay crammed on top of each other in the back as they rode for three hours until reaching the Howard Johnson Inn near Clear Lake that Friday afternoon.

Across town that night, Elmer's cell phone rang. It was El Negro. Elmer did not answer, but the coyote left a message saying that he was going to kill Miguel if Elmer did not pick up his brother.

The next morning, El Negro called again and this time Elmer answered. They agreed to meet at a gas station near the corner of Beltway 8 and South Post Oak. Elmer called his friend Danilo for a ride.

Elmer was scared; he had only $500, a far cry from the $1,800 he needed to free his brother, and he could not get ahold of another friend who'd said he'd lend Elmer the cash.

Elmer and Danilo hopped into Danilo's 2001 Ford Windstar and started toward the gas station. Along the way, Danilo stopped and picked up two men he worked with. They thought that if they showed up with more people, the odds were better that everything would run smoothly.

At the gas station, Elmer's plan was to get Miguel, give the smugglers what money he had and work out a way to pay the rest later. He walked over to the SUV with Miguel and Spezzia inside and opened Miguel's door.

Elmer testified in court that he tried to talk to Spezzia but Spezzia would not let him. Instead, Spezzia grabbed Elmer, took a pistol out of his waistband and pressed it into Elmer's stomach. Miguel jumped out of the car and began running. Spezzia forced Elmer inside the Expedition as they sped away from the gas station. Inside the car, Spezzia hit Elmer across the right eye with the gun; blood spattered across Elmer's shirt.

Meanwhile, Miguel quickly jumped into the van with Danilo and they chased after the SUV, trying to write down its license plate number. But Danilo lost them when the smugglers drove onto Beltway 8 and cruised through the EZ Pass Lane of a tollbooth. Danilo didn't follow. He was afraid of getting pulled over by police, detained and possibly deported. Stunned and frightened, Miguel and Danilo did not speak on the drive back to Danilo's home that morning.

Over the next several days, Danilo spoke on the phone with the smugglers several times. They set new deadlines and kept raising the fee — $2,300, $3,000 and finally up to $3,300 — threatening to beat Elmer and chop off his fingers one by one until they reached his head.

On Monday evening, January 8, 2007, three days after Elmer had been kidnapped, Danilo called the Houston Police Department asking for officers to save his friend's life.

Charles Spezzia, known as "Charlie" to his fellow smugglers, was born in Chicago. He is described by people who've met the black-haired, brown-eyed man as looking much younger than his 26 years, almost like a teenager. He stands at five foot nine inches and weighs more than 200 pounds.

Spezzia has a criminal record, but it's rather unimpressive. Nothing violent, at least. He had been charged with stealing a car and driving on a suspended driver's license, according to Harris County court records, but that was about it.

Prosecutors say they never determined exactly how long he was in the immigrant smuggling game, but his ex-girlfriend Patricia Garza testified he had been doing it for years by the time they met in 2006. She said he'd told her his father was a smuggler who had been deported to Mexico for plying his profession and had introduced Spezzia to the business.

Prosecutors would have had a tougher time getting a conviction against Spezzia if not for Garza, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregg Costa. She testified against Spezzia, which in turn helped her get a lighter sentence of only 11 months in prison.

About a year before police arrested them, the two met at Sugar's Cabaret, a strip club where Garza was dancing under the name "Sasha." At the time, she was working part-time and pulling in about $3,000 a month, though she said in court that she had a negative balance in her bank account.

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