A U.S. citizen who was arrested entering the country from Mexico with two dying men in the trunk of his car pleaded guilty on Tuesday to felony smuggling charges in a federal California court.
Nicholas George Zakov, 43, admitted that he acted with “extreme disregard” for the lives of the two Mexican citizens he was being paid to smuggle into the United States, court documents showed.
Zakov, who is from North Dakota but moved to the Los Angeles area, has been in federal custody since Aug. 12, following his arrest at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers found 28-year-old Tarcisio Casas-Blanco and 20-year-old Jose Quiroz-Casas, both of Guanajato, in the trunk of a 2012 Dodge Challenger. One had stopped breathing and the other was near-death.
Zakov admitted he ignored cries for help from the men in the trunk while he waited to pass customs at the port of entry, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California.
The statement says they were heard begging to be released from the trunk because it was extremely hot. Cars at the port of entry often wait more than an hour in line, according to government reports.
The men died from hyperthermia and asphyxiation, the statement said.
Zakov was to be paid $3,500 for bringing both men into the U.S., according to court documents. Both Casas-Blanco and Quiroz-Casas had been caught in the United States illegally before and were voluntarily returned to Mexico – a process where they waived hearings that might have led to formal deportation.
Zakov faces a minimum sentence of three years in prison or up to a maximum of life, and a fine of up to $250,000 on two counts of smuggling humans that result in death and two counts of smuggling illegal aliens for financial gain. He is scheduled to be sentenced on April 10.
(Editing by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Michael Perry)