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Driver charged in crash that killed suspected illegal immigrants

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Rigoberto Salas-Lopez

Rigoberto Salas-Lopez

Federal charges have been filed against the driver of an SUV that rolled in Utah's Four Corners area, killing eight people and injuring six others.

The U.S. Attorneys Office in Utah charged Rigoberto Salas-Lopez late this afternoon with transporting illegal aliens, resulting in their deaths. It is a charge that carries a potential punishment of prison time — or the death penalty.

"The case will ultimately be presented to a grand jury," said U.S. Attorney's spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch. "It's possible additional charges could be considered."

Salas-Lopez, 30, is scheduled to make his first appearance before a federal magistrate Wednesday afternoon.

The Utah Highway Patrol said Salas-Lopez, 30, was driving a Chevrolet Suburban on U.S. 191 early Monday morning, when it rolled and crashed. Salas-Lopez fled the vehicle into the desert. A UHP trooper and a San Juan County Sheriff's deputy tracked him for 10 miles before arresting him.

Salas-Lopez told immigration agents he was given the Chevrolet Suburban by someone identified as Neftali Espinoza from Phoenix, according to an affidavit filed in federal court in Salt Lake City.

"He stated that Espinoza offered him $1,000 to drive the individuals from Phoenix to St. Louis and also gave him $500 for gas," U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Timothy Chard wrote.

Salas-Lopez also told agents he knew the 14 people he was transporting were from Mexico and Guatemala and were in the United States illegally.

Immigrations officers said their investigation is still ongoing into who else may have been involved in smuggling the illegal immigrants into the country.

"It will also be critically important to speak with witnesses to learn the circumstances leading up to the crash, where they crossed the border, if they know the names and identities of those who may be involved in this game," immigrations-enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said today.

Authorities are still trying to identify the dead and injured. Meanwhile, the highway patrol said it has determined a possible cause of the crash.

"We have indications through the interviews that potentially he was fondling a female passenger," UHP Lt. Todd Peterson said today.

Investigators said the driver initially claimed he swerved to avoid hitting a horse. The survivors' statements contradicted that, troopers said.

"He didn't have his full attention to his driving," UHP Trooper Preston Raban said.

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com