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HOUSTON — A judge ordered a Houston man to serve 10 years in federal prison Aug. 1 for organizing a human smuggling ring where he recruited and directed others to transport unlawfully present noncitizens into the interior of the United States.
The investigation that led to the conviction and sentencing was conducted by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Houston and the U.S. Border Patrol.
Charles Lee Smith, 55, was sentenced in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to 10 years in federal prison to be immediately followed by three years of supervised release for conspiracy to transport unlawfully present noncitizens. Smith pleaded guilty to the charges on Dec. 1, 2021.
The investigation showed that from Feb. 26, 2021, through Sept. 14, 2021, Smith recruited others to illegally transport noncitizens from Laredo, Texas, to San Antonio, Houston and other destinations. Smith acquired and paid for the load vehicles, as well as travel expenses and lodging for the drivers he recruited. In total, the investigation showed that Smith supervised the transport of approximately 182 noncitizens, including six unaccompanied minors.
The investigation also showed that on Dec. 8, 2020, law enforcement officials apprehended as he personally transported three non-U.S. citizens. After that incident, he began recruiting others to drive.
On Sept. 9, 2021, Smith met Brandon Joseph Bartholomew, a 40-year-old resident of Magnolia, and hired and contracted him for $10,000 to transport semitractor-trailers loaded with non-U.S. citizens from Laredo to Houston. Smith told Bartholomew he would be able to take multiple loads that week.
On Sep. 14, 2021, Bartholomew drove a semitractor-trailer to the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint near Freer. He told authorities he was hauling rice and beans and presented a fraudulent bill of lading. Upon inspection, officials discovered the logos and Department of Transportation number printed on the tractor and trailer were fraudulent. Authorities cut the trailer door seal and discovered 49 unlawfully present noncitizens from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. The temperature inside the enclosed trailer was 91 degrees F. On April 19, 2022, Bartholomew was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison.
Smith will remain in custody pending transfer to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.
The Texas Department of Public Safety assisted with the investigation into the other individuals involved in illegally transporting noncitizens. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Isaac prosecuted this case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Colton Turner handled the sentencing.
For more news and information on HSI’s efforts to aggressively investigate human smuggling in Southeast Texas follow us on Twitter @HSIHouston.
HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.
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