By Joe Beck -- email@example.com
Interstate 81 in Shenandoah County turned out to be the road to prison Wednesday for a New York City man convicted of transporting and moving illegal immigrants.
Luis Vendrell-Morel was sentenced to one year and one day in prison under a sentencing order entered in U.S. District Court by Judge Michael F. Urbanski. One-year prison sentences often carry an additional day to allow the defendant to qualify for good behavior incentives or rehabilitation programs that are not available with sentences of one year or less.
Vendrall-Morel's attorney, assistant federal public defender Andrea L. Harris, argued in a sentencing memorandum that her client was just an unemployed cab driver looking to earn a little money when "he ran into a friend in New York who offered to pay him to drive a van with some passengers from Texas to Maryland."
Harris asked for a sentence of 10 months, five of which would be served in home confinement.
Harris said Vendrall-Morel, 28, was born in Puerto Rico and moved with his parents to the Dominican Republic where he graduated from high school and attended college for one trimester. He moved to the United States after his school years and has lived and worked steadily in this country "for the better part of the last decade, with regular trips to the Dominican Republic to visit his family," she wrote.
He most recently worked as a cab driver in New York in 2011, according to Harris's memorandum.
Court records show that Virginia State Police stopped a 2006 Ford Econoline van driven by Vendrell-Morel on I-81 on April 13. They discovered a van filled with 19 passengers.
An affidavit filed by Special Agent David Liu of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security states that state police stopped Vendrell-Morel for driving a vehicle with darkened tinted window while he was traveling northbound on I-81.
Vendrell-Morel told investigators that he was to be paid $500 for transporting the passengers and $400 for gas and food expenses, according to the affidavit.
The sentencing memorandum filed by Special Assistant U.S. Attorney L.A. Shannon Wright states that the van's passengers turned out to be illegal immigrants being transported "for profit, from a Texas stash house to various locations in the United States."
Wright's memorandum also describes stressful conditions endured by the passengers during the trip.
"The van did not have enough seat belts for all the passengers, and the occupants testified that the trip was long and uncomfortable," Wright said. "Also, according to witnesses, the defendant got only a few hours sleep during the 20-hour journey and drank energy drinks to stay awake. Several passengers testified that the defendant drove erratically and spent most of the trip talking on his cell phone.
"In addition, the defendant advised the passengers not to get out of the van and told the males to urinate in a gas can. The defendant informed passengers that their families had to pay him for their passage upon their arrival, or he would transport them back to Houston."
Wright called Vendrell-Morel's treatment of his passengers "thoughtless" and a factor, along with his violation of immigrant law, for Urbanski to consider in his sentencing decision.
Wright asked Urbanski to impose a prison sentence of 18 months.