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One arrested after 29 found in suspected Houston human smuggling case

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 12/5/2020 By St. John Barned-Smith and Anna Bauman, Staff writers

Mary Lewis saw the nearly naked man running toward her as she walked back to her home after a conversation with her mailman.

Scratches covered his torso, arms and legs, and he kept looking over his shoulder as he begged for help.

“He had no shirt, no pants,” Lewis said.

The man appeared to have jumped over the fence of a home on Ridge Raven Drive before running through her yard Thursday evening, she said.

“It scared the hell out of me!” she said.

When police showed up to 4846 Ridge Raven Drive around 6:15 p.m., they found more than two dozen people in their underwear, crammed into a 1,300-square-foot home, part of an apparent human smuggling operation.

A 36-year-old Honduran national who was illegally living in Houston has been charged with harboring 29 individuals, U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick announced Friday evening.

Immigration authorities arrested Mauro Dominguez-Maldonado late Thursday. He is expected to make his initial appearance Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Frances Stacy.

Houston Police Southwest Patrol Commander Jonathon Halliday said that after patrol officers responded to calls about the man in his underwear pleading for help, saying he’d been kidnapped, they set up a perimeter around the home. A car started backing out of the garage but the driver ran back inside, Halliday said. Officers heard a loud noise inside and, fearing for the residents’ safety, entered the home.

Inside were the people stripped to their underwear to prevent escape. It appeared to be one of the largest human trafficking cases in the Houston area since at least 2014.

“That’s a pretty significant number for us to encounter,” Halliday said.

The occupants of the house told authorities they had been held at the home against their will for two days to a week, Halliday said.

Smugglers appeared to have picked up many of the people in the house in Brownsville, Halliday said, and the majority of those smuggled came from Mexico, Cuba, Honduras and El Salvador. Their immigration status was unclear.

It’s possible they were being held for ransom, Halliday said.

The criminal complaint alleges Dominguez-Maldonado was in charge of watching over the people in the home and “performing multiple tasks in furtherance of a human smuggling operation.”

If convicted, Dominguez-Maldonado faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a possible $250,000 maximum fine.

On Thursday night, Houston police officers knocked on the door of Ridgemont Elementary School and asked the custodian to open the gym as temporary shelter for the victims, said Fort Bend ISD spokesman Nick Petito.

“The neighborhood was amazing in the outpouring of support that they showed,” Petito said. “It’s unfortunate circumstances, but we hopefully played a role in providing shelter for that time being.”

Richard Cruz, named as the property owner in Fort Bend Central Appraisal District documents, said he saw news reports about the raid, but didn’t realize it had occurred at his property until police called him at about 1:30 a.m. asking him to secure the residence.

“We have no idea (what happened),” Cruz said.

When he arrived, the home was in disarray, he said.

“You could tell people were living on the floor,” Cruz said. “There’s sheetrock all over the place.”

It looked like people had run to hide in the ceiling when authorities came, Cruz said. The garage door was broken and a car was damaged. Cruz said police told him the damage happened when someone tried to escape.

On Friday, two SUVs remained parked in the home’s driveway and garage. A small pile of clothes lay on the sidewalk near the home.

A mattress and cleaning supplies were visible in the backyard of the home, and one door remained open.

Neighbors said that in recent days they had seen the house’s renters — two men and a woman — arriving at the home in one of two SUVs, and pulling into the building’s garage, then leaving minutes later.

“We thought they didn’t have jobs, because they were always there,” said Julio Alemán. His wife, Maria, walked out of their home Thursday night to take out her trash, only to find the street full of police officers and paramedics.

They yelled at her to get back inside. SWAT and other officers flooded the scene, using a bullhorn to urge the smugglers to come out of the house.

Hours later, Alemán and others saw police bringing occupants of the house outside, in groups of two or three.

“We couldn’t stop counting,” said Bruno Chavero, who lives next door to the stash house.

All but one were young men, she said, most in underwear, shivering in the late fall chill.

She and other neighbors brought police clothes to give to the smugglers’ victims, and officers moved them into the Ridgemont Elementary gymnasium.

Houston’s proximity to the border and its position along major highways make it a common distribution point for human smugglers, said Jerry Robinette, former special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations’ San Antonio field office.

“Some things don’t change,” said Robinette, who handled numerous stash house investigations during his time at HSI and, before that, as a Houston police officer.

“A lot of bad things happen in those stash houses,” he said, citing deplorable conditions, and incidents of abuse and other problems. “Some intentional, others just as a byproduct.”

The operation uncovered Thursday is the largest in at least six years. In 2014, authorities acting on an extortion tip discovered more than 100 people packed into a south Harris County home where they had been locked in by smugglers.

More recently, five men were charged with human smuggling and kidnapping last summer, after authorities uncovered a home in northwest Houston. The men were allegedly holding 18 people for ransom.

Months before, authorities found 16 people in a north Houston trailer in a similar case.

And in July 2017, officials in San Antonio found dozens of people crammed into an unventilated tractor-trailer in a Walmart parking lot. Ten of them died.

Robinette said the investigation would provide several significant challenges to HSI/ICE officials, including sorting out the identities of all of the people found in the house, identifying the smugglers and other suspects, and then attempting to track down the people they worked with.

“When you look at getting things (or people) smuggled, across the border — or up to Houston, nothing has changed,” he said.

st.john.smith@chron.com

anna.bauman@chron.com

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