San Diego

Man's Screams Alert Tow Yard in Human Smuggling Attempt

An employee at a San Diego tow yard heard banging from inside a locked compartment of the pickup and called for help

Shulin Zheng thought he was going to die.

Zheng’s decision to scream for help led to his rescue. The Chinese national had been stuffed inside the hidden compartment of a pickup truck for hours without water.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say Zheng described the experience after he was taken into custody Saturday in San Diego.

Zheng said a man in Mexico agreed to smuggle him into the U.S. in exchange for nearly $60,000. He told agents it took him 40 minutes to get into the crawl space behind the driver’s seat.

He was told he would only be in there for 10 minutes, according to the federal complaint.

The Toyota Tundra carrying Zheng crossed into the U.S. at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry at 1:19 a.m. according to federal records.

About half an hour later, a San Diego police officer pulled over the pickup for a traffic stop at Interstate 15 and Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. Salvador Vera, Jr. was behind the wheel, CBP officials said.

Upon finding Vera was driving with a suspended license, the officer called to have the pickup impounded.

The truck was towed to Road One Towing on Ruffner Street. More than 90 minutes after the traffic stop, a tow yard employee heard Zheng’s cries for help.

The employee described banging sounds coming from inside a locked compartment of the truck.

San Diego police and San Diego Fire-Rescue crews were called. By 4:45 a.m., Zheng had been rescued from the small space and placed in CBP custody.

Vera is facing several charges of human smuggling and a weapons charge, according to the federal complaint. Vera, who told CBP investigators he is a U.S. citizen, allegedly had $6,376 in his possession.

Investigators also say they found a 9mm Beretta with ammunition in the pickup.

Zheng is a Chinese national who has no immigration status in the U.S., federal officials said. He is currently awaiting deportation.

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