Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald has charged Elvis J. Quintanilla-Vasquez with four second-degree felony counts of aggravated human smuggling. The 36-year-old Lancaster, Calif., resident, who is a Salvadoran citizen, also stands accused of three third-degree felony counts of human smuggling and a class C misdemeanor charge of improper lane travel.
During the defendant’s first appearance in 7th District Court on June 3, Fitzgerald said his office believes that Quintanilla-Vasquez likely participated in past human smuggling activities. He also said the van in this case was reportedly spotted in Phoenix about two weeks before it overturned off Interstate 70 near Thompson Springs.
Phoenix is a major hub for human smuggling and human trafficking activities, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
“We think that the defendant has a certain level of culpability in (this case) … We believe this is something of a network,” Fitzgerald told 7th District Judge Lyle R. Anderson.
Salt Lake City defense attorney Cara M. Tangaro rejected those claims outright.
“This is the first time I’ve heard that,” Tangaro said. “My client has not been in Phoenix.”
Tangaro did not dispute allegations that Quintanilla-Vasquez was driving the 1999 Toyota Sienna van at the time of the accident. But she said she believes her client may be one of the victims in this case.
“This is obviously a tragic case,” she said. “The issue in this case, however, is a lack of evidence against Mr. Quintanilla.”
According to court records, the single-vehicle accident occurred at about 4:30 a.m. on May 16.
The UHP identified three of the deceased victims as Freddie Sanchez-Garcia, 19; Rueben Alberto Perez-Manriquez, 32; and Efrain Morales Carteno, 30. The name of the fourth victim has not been released, pending notification of that person’s family.
All four men were carrying false identification, according to a probable cause statement from Utah Department of Public Safety Investigator Brad Bullock.
“It is believed that none of the occupants being transported had any documents verifying that they were in the state legally,” Bullock reported.
Multiple witnesses said that a woman who was also in the van fled the scene on foot. The woman’s whereabouts are still unknown.
The remaining survivors of the wreck, including Quintanilla-Vasquez, were transported to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction for medical care.
Quintanilla-Vasquez underwent surgery to remove three of his fingers. He was subsequently arrested and extradited to Grand County.
One of the injured men told a Colorado Highway Patrol trooper that Quintanilla-Vasquez and the female passenger picked them up in California. The man said that Quintanilla-Vasquez was transporting them to work for one of his family members in Chicago, according to Bullock’s probable cause statement.
Tangaro, however, said there is very little evidence to suggest that Quintanilla-Vasquez was involved in human smuggling activities.
“They wanted to charge him quickly because they believe he is a flight risk, but they don’t have the information to back it up,” she said.
Quintanilla-Vasquez is scheduled to return to court for a June 17 preliminary hearing; he remains in custody on a $100,000 bond.