Fifteen Mexican nationals crowded together was not what sheriff's deputy Dennis Newman expected see when he looked in the back of a 1998 Oldsmobile Silhouette van during a routine traffic stop on Highway 87 near Round Valley at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday evening.
"I was looking for drug smugglers," said Newman, who was on patrol as part of the Gila County Narcotics Task Force Highway Interdiction Unit. "Vans are popular for transporting large amounts of drugs (and they were) hiding behind dark window tint."
The Oldsmobile's windows were tinted to let in only 15 percent of outside light. By law, they must allow at least 33 percent.
Newman pulled over the van when he saw it following another vehicle too closely and also noticed the dark-tinted windows.
He walked up to the van and the window tint was so dark he could barely see the driver and the passenger in the right front seat. When the driver rolled the window down, Newman looked in the back.
"They were stacked in there like cordwood," Newman said. Among the 15, he saw at least two women.
The second seat was taken out to make room for the other 12 to sit or lie on the floor.
"This was a little minivan," Newman said.
Newman's attention quickly shifted when the driver of the Ohio-plated van, Saul Mejia, 27, of Mexico, ran from the vehicle. Capturing the driver became his main concern.
Mejia was caught quickly, along with another passenger who ran, because deputy Colt White, Sgt. Craig Smith of the sheriff's office, and two cars from the Payson Police Department fanned out in all directions leaving nowhere for the men to run.
The 15 undocumented workers were let out of the van. Border Patrol was contacted and Mejia and passengers were released to them.
What happens to the undocumented workers now is up to the Border Patrol.
"(Mejia) told me when I first stopped him that he was making $50 a head to drive these people back to Ohio (from Mesa)," Newman said.
The van's odometer read 120,800 when it was impounded. It had traveled 39,800 miles since it was purchased in Ohio Feb. 15.
As a deputy, Newman said he drives about 33,000 miles a year working all of Gila County.
Newman's report charges Mejia with the original traffic violations and human smuggling, a Class Four felony. The felony could lead to a prison term, but that will be up to the Gila County Attorney's Office.