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Utah rollover kills 8, injures 7

Was driver smuggling illegals into the U.S.?

SHARE Utah rollover kills 8, injures 7

An SUV stuffed with passengers believed by authorities to be illegal immigrants crashed Monday in Utah's Four Corners area, killing eight people and injuring seven others.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is holding the alleged driver, a 30-year-old Guatemalan man, in custody in the Utah County Jail.

"He's being held on administrative immigration violations," ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said. "We are hoping he and the victims can tell us how they came to be on that highway that night."

The Utah Highway Patrol said a Chevrolet Suburban was traveling north on U.S. 191 near Bluff about 3:30 a.m. Monday. Troopers said the driver became distracted and the vehicle went off the road.

"He ran off the roadway to the right, a severe overcorrection to the left and tried to regain control of it," UHP Lt. Todd Peterson said Monday. "It began to roll. It rolled at least two or three times, if not more than that. The majority of the people were ejected as it rolled."

The silver-colored Suburban was severely smashed up. All of its windows were blown out. Blood was on the seats inside the SUV.

"It was pretty horrific," Peterson said of the crash scene.

Officers say the driver — who was the only one wearing a seat belt — fled from the crash scene into the desert. A San Juan County sheriff's deputy and a UHP trooper followed his tracks for about seven miles before catching him.

"They followed this guy in the desert and caught up to him, and he surrendered without incident," Peterson said.

Rigorberto Solis-Lopez was arrested on investigation of fleeing the scene of an accident. He was taken to the hospital with a broken arm and later questioned by federal immigration agents.

The SUV was registered out of Mesa, Ariz., and authorities were looking at its owners' connection to Solis-Lopez.

Kice said a human-smuggling investigation is under way.

"All the outward signs are, this was a load of smuggled aliens," she said Monday. "An overloaded vehicle traveling in the middle of the night. This is a common corridor used for human smuggling. The aliens who arrange to be smuggled into the country, they pay thousands of dollars. They are essentially treated like human cargo."

Six were pronounced dead at the scene of the crash. The survivors were taken to hospitals in Monticello, Utah; Farmington and Shiprock, N.M.; and Grand Junction, Colo. Two later died from their injuries.

ICE officials said they were still determining the nationality of the victims, but 11 were believed to be Guatemalan and three Mexican nationals. The Mexican consulate in Salt Lake City was working with authorities to identify the survivors and the dead.

"We will get in touch with them to verify their medical situation, see that they receive the proper attention," said Manuel Morodo with the consul's protection affairs.

Federal charges could result for Solis-Lopez or anyone else involved in the smuggling or driving.

"If someone is engaged in human smuggling and the aliens sustained injury or death, there are very serious sentencing — including the death penalty," Kice said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah said it was aware of the investigation and working with ICE officials.

In June 2005, two people were killed in a head-on crash near Monticello when the driver, Isidro Aranda-Flores, 25, fell asleep at the wheel and collided head-on with another car, killing Travis Smith, 19. Four people were in the car with Aranda-Flores, including 62-year-old Bernarda Gorilla, who was also killed. Federal prosecutors charged Aranda-Flores, and he later pleaded guilty to transporting undocumented aliens resulting in death.

Aranda-Flores was ultimately sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison.

U.S. 191 is a road that is known for human smuggling and drug trafficking. From Arizona, people can drive either east into Colorado or north into Utah toward I-70.

In October 2005, a van carrying 16 undocumented immigrants crashed near Moab. Two people were killed in the crash. Authorities said at the time that the middle seat had been removed to get more people inside the van.

"To the smuggling organizations, these aren't human beings. They are human cargo," Kice said. "If you're trying to maximize your profit, the more you cram into your vehicle."

Local authorities say they do what they can to keep on top of the problem, stopping vehicles and alerting federal ICE officials.

"We have two counties, 650 state road miles and 10 officers," said Peterson, who is the UHP's section commander for the area covering Grand and San Juan counties. "We do our best to deal with the problem."

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com