SAN DIEGO - A man who helped recruit a driver to smuggle three Chinese migrants who were later found dead inside the trunk of a car parked in a San Diego neighborhood was sentenced today to 41 months in federal prison.
Prosecutors say Saad Ali Awan placed help-wanted ads on Craigslist to enlist drivers to transport people who had been smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border.
A man who responded to the ads, Neil Edwin Valera, smuggled three Chinese nationals -- including a woman and her 15-year-old son -- across the border in 2019, according to federal prosecutors.
Their bodies were discovered on Aug. 11, 2019, after San Diego police responded to a report of a foul odor and blood dripping from the car, which was parked in the Bay Terraces neighborhood. Prosecutors said the victims died due to a combination of asphyxiation and heat while inside the trunk of Valera's BMW.
Video footage showed the BMW -- which was registered to Valera -- crossing into the United States at the San Ysidro Port of Entry two days before the bodies were found.
Valera pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison.
According to a sentencing memorandum from Awan's defense attorney, R. Deke Falls, Awan asked Valera to drive people who had already crossed the border to Los Angeles, but Valera refused to transport people.
He later passed Valera's phone number on to a Mexican-based trafficker referred to in court documents as ``Alex,'' who contacted Valera and offered him money to smuggle drugs, Falls wrote.
As Valera was driving across the border, he heard sounds coming from the trunk and realized people were inside the car, according to the attorney.
Valera was then instructed by ``Alex'' to pass his car onto another driver. According to Falls, ``Alex'' then cut off all contact with both Awan and Valera, ``most likely after receiving the news that the people had died.''
Falls said that like Valera, Awan had no knowledge that people would be smuggled inside the car and his only role was giving ``Alex'' Valera's phone number.
The attorney wrote that his client was a UC San Diego student at the time who, on the side, recruited drivers to transport people who had crossed the border illegally. He previously pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in another smuggling case from 2018.
Falls wrote, ``Mr. Awan got back involved into transporting aliens because he did not have enough money to pay his bills, and he did not want to further burden his parents, who were already struggling to make ends meet. But still, he understands that this is not a good excuse.''
Awan pleaded guilty last year to bringing in aliens without presentation for financial gain and conspiracy to transport aliens resulting in death.
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