Nicholas Zakov told a federal judge that he "takes full responsibility" for the deaths of Tarcisio Casas-Blanco and Jose Aurelio Quiroz-Casas, who suffocated in the trunk of Zakov's car while he tried to smuggle them across the U.S.-Mexico border at San Ysidro in August, 2014.
"It destroys me every night," a tearful Zakov said at Tuesday's sentencing in San Diego. "I am truly devastated. It kills me inside."
But one of the victim's widows refused to accept that apology.
"He could have opened the trunk," Graciela Casas told Judge Anthony Battaglia through tears in court.
Talking directly to Zakov, Casas said, "You had a choice (to let the victims out of the trunk) and you didn't."
Federal prosecutor Patrick J. Bumatay agreed, telling the judge that Zakov "made the decision not to let (the victims) out" of the trunk, even though the temperature was 104 degrees in the trunk of Zakov's Dodge Challenger.
The widow told NBC 7 in San Diego that she has three daughters, aged 2, 5, and 7. She said her oldest daughter blames herself for her father's death, and is so emotional scarred by what happened that she "wants to kill" Zakov.
Judge Battaglia said this case should be treated as a second-degree homicide type crime, because of the "extreme risk" and "severe circumstance" in which Zakov placed the victims.
Prosecutor Patrick Bumatay agreed, telling Judge Battaglia that Zakov "kept going even when the victims made noise" in the trunk, a clear sign they were suffocating and trying to get out. "He [Zakov], made the decision not to let them out," Bumatay told the judge.
Zakov's attorney stressed that his client had a minor role in the smuggling conspiracy, did not arrange for the victims to be smuggled, and only followed directions from the criminal organization that arranged the smuggling. He said he was "partying" in Tijuana when he was approached by someone who offered him a chance to earn money by taking immigrants across the border, and "reuniting families." Zakov said he rejected the offer several times, but then decided to do it.
"I was deceived and lied to," Zakov said.
"He had no involvement in planning [the crime], and knew little or nothing about the organizations [that arranged it]," Zakov's attorney said.
Defense attorney Gerard Wassons said Zakov is "truly devastated by the events and truly remorseful" and that he was inexperienced and unstable when he agreed to accept payment from the smuggling organization to transport the two victims. Zakov's attorney said his client has cooperated fully with a government investigation into the smuggling ring, and suggested that a prison term of 57 to 71 months would be appropriate punishment.
Judge Battaglia also sentenced Zakov to five years of supervised release when he finishes his prison sentence. He called it a "tragic case" but said Zakov deserved the 7-year sentence because "he chose to proceed" with the smuggling, despite signs that the victims were suffering. "We don't leave our decision-making process at the door," Battaglia told Zakov.
According to a 2014 complaint, Zakov was taken into custody after trying to cross into the U.S. at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. At that point, the complaint said, he confessed everything to border officers.
He had been instructed to drive to a Denny's in Chula Vista with the two men in the trunk. There, he would receive further instructions. He said he coordinated the smuggling operation with three different men in Mexico and was promised a payment of $3,500.