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THOMPSON SPRINGS, Grand County — Four people were killed and four others critically injured after a van apparently involved in a human smuggling operation rolled multiple times on I-70 Friday morning.
About 4:30 a.m., approximately 34 miles west of the Utah-Colorado border, a 1999 Toyota Sienna carrying a driver and eight passengers "lost control, rolled multiple times down the middle of the interstate, ejecting multiple occupants," said Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Todd Royce.
Four men were pronounced dead at the scene. Four other men were transported by ambulance or medical helicopter in critical condition to St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, he said. The driver was among those who survived but was unable to speak with investigators on Friday, according to the UHP.
Investigators believe a ninth person, possibly a woman, walked away from the scene and was picked up by someone. It was unknown Friday if the woman was picked up hitchhiking by a random motorist or if it was by someone acquainted with her.
"We're looking at this as possibly being a human smuggling case," Royce said.
The Utah State Bureau of Investigations, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were assisting the UHP in the investigation.
All of the accident victims are Hispanic, he said. Royce declined to disclose what state the license plate on the vehicle was from, but said it was not from Utah.
The vehicle was traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago, where the occupants of the vehicle were reportedly going to Chicago for work. Surveillance video from a convenience store taken about 25 minutes prior to the crash showed the van had made a stop. The missing woman was in the passenger seat, according to the UHP.
What caused the van to roll was still being investigated Friday.
Troopers are hoping to locate the ninth passenger. "One concern is the medical well-being of that person. If they walked away and haven't been checked out by medical, that's a concern of ours. We'd like to talk to whoever that person is," Royce said. "(She's) a vital piece to this puzzle."
Eastbound I-70 was closed for about three hours following the crash.
Investigators say such human smuggling operations aren't unusual.
• In 2007, eight people were killed and seven injured when an SUV on U.S. 191 near Bluff, San Juan County, went off the road and rolled. Law enforcers said it was another incident of human smuggling.
The driver fled the accident scene with a broken arm. Officers were able to track him six miles into the desert before catching up with and arresting him.
• In October 2005, a van carrying 14 illegal immigrants rolled on U.S. 191 near Moab, killing two people. The driver, Neo Luna-Escanola, was sentenced to two years in federal prison for falling asleep and causing the accident.
But federal prosecutors placed the most blame on Raul Ramirez-Becerra, a "coyote" who was paid by the group of illegal immigrants to smuggle them into the country. After the accident, he walked away from a Moab hospital. It wasn't until two years later that officers caught up with him and arrested him in Phoenix.
"I never wanted to hurt anyone," Becerra told U.S. District Judge Dee Benson through a Spanish interpreter, adding that he worked to smuggle immigrants out of financial need. Becerra was sentenced to 2 ½ years in federal prison and was ordered to be deported and never return to the U.S.
• In June 2005, two people were killed in a head-on crash near Monticello when the driver, Isidro Aranda-Flores, 25, fell asleep at the wheel and collided head-on with another car, killing Travis Smith, 19. Four people were in the car with Aranda-Flores, including 62-year-old Bernarda Gorilla, who was also killed. Federal prosecutors charged Aranda-Flores, and he later pleaded guilty to transporting undocumented aliens resulting in death. Aranda-Flores was ultimately sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison.
In 2005, the UHP troopers told the Deseret News that hundreds of mostly Mexican nationals crammed into shoddy vans, SUVs and even U-Haul trailers pass through remote San Juan County in the state's southeastern corner each day. The migrant traffic in southeastern Utah picks up during harvest season and when construction jobs are in demand in the spring and summer.
Contributing: Whitney Evans and Shara Park