Van driver admits to immigration charges

The Guatemalan denies driving at the time of the fatal accident.
Thursday, August 11, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:23 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

One of the drivers of the van that overturned on Interstate 70 in June, killing five passengers, pleaded guilty Wednesday to two immigration charges but denied being behind the wheel at the time of the crash.

Another man, whose name had not been released but is also believed to have been one of the van’s drivers, was in federal custody.

Gelson Omar Mancilla-Santiago, 22, of Guatemala admitted to conspiring to transport illegal aliens within the United States and to illegally re-entering the country after being deported. He faces up to seven years in federal prison without parole and a fine up to $500,000.

He is also likely to be deported after serving his sentence, said Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Mancilla-Santiago, who was deported from the United States on Oct. 25, 2004, said he shared driving responsibilities with another person but denied driving at the time of the accident, according to statements issued by prosecutor Todd Graves, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

Another Guatemalan man, thought to be a second driver, was being held by U.S. Marshals, Rusnok said. It was unclear what charges, if any, he might face.

Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said it would be inappropriate to comment on whether additional charges would be filed against Mancilla-Santiago or others but did not rule out the possibility.

“The case isn’t over at this point,” Ledford said. “We have to see where the investigation leads.”

The accident occurred on the morning of June 19 when a van packed with 20 male and female passengers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador struck a median between the Rocheport and Midway exits on I-70 and overturned several times. The passengers ranged in age from 16 to 46. Five died, and several more were seriously injured.

In court Wednesday, Mancilla-Santiago admitted that he was given money and a van loaded with at least 17 illegal immigrants and agreed to drive from Los Angeles to New York.

The van had been used earlier to transport illegal aliens to Virginia, according to a news release from Graves’ office. It was purchased by Jose Landaverde in North Hills, Calif., in March 2004, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

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