JEFFERSON CITY — A Guatemalan man who was a passenger in the van that crashed on Interstate 70 in June, killing five illegal immigrants, was sentenced Friday to four years and three months in federal prison.
Judge Nanette Laughrey, of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, sentenced Gelson Omar Mancilla-Santiago, 22, to concurrent sentences of 51 months for conspiring to transport illegal immigrants within the United States and six months for illegally re-entering the country after being deported. He was ordered to pay $13,775.50 restitution to the families of the people killed in the crash.
The person believed to be the driver of the van was in federal custody as of Friday afternoon, but his or her name has not been released, said Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas City.
When Mancilla-Santiago pleaded guilty to the immigration charges in August, he admitted that he and another person took turns driving a van that set out from Los Angeles on June 17, carrying 18 illegal immigrants. He denied that he was behind the wheel when the van struck the median and rolled in the eastbound lanes of I-70 between the Rocheport and Midway exits.
Sixteen of the 20 people in the van were thrown from the 2001 Chevrolet extended passenger van when it flipped, said Sgt. Mike Mahon from the Major Crash Investigation Unit of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who prepared a report about the crash. The maximum number of seat belts in that model of van is 15, he said.
Mahon said the accident likely occurred when the driver, inattentive or asleep, drifted to the right, then over-corrected and hit the median on the left side of the road.
Laughrey said the case was particularly troubling to her because although Mancilla-Santiago wasn’t driving and didn’t cause the accident, five young people died and others were injured “while the defendant was making a profit.”
But Laughrey said it’s the people who hire illegal immigrants like Mancilla-Santiago who need to be punished.
“Somehow we’ve got to find the people at the top,” Laughrey said. “Nobody ever gives me the employers who are hiring these illegal aliens.”
In his closing statement before the sentencing, Troy Stabonow, Mancilla-Santiago’s lawyer, noted that the sentencing occurred in the midst of the debate over what to do about the millions of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. He said that before the accident, Mancilla-Santiago had been pursuing the American dream.
“I’m terribly sorry for what happened that day,” Mancilla-Santiago told the judge after receiving his sentence. The same van was used in an earlier trip to transport illegal immigrants to Virginia, Ledford said.