By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A Los Angeles man who ignored the pleas of two dying men he was smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border in the trunk of his car was sentenced to seven years in prison on Tuesday.
Nicholas George Zakov, 43, was arrested at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego in August last year after federal agents found the two dying men in the trunk of his orange Dodge Challenger.
Zakov later told investigators he was to be paid $3,500 to drive Tarcisio Casas-Blanco, 28, and Jose Aurelio Quiroz-Casas, 20, through the U.S. Customs inspection point.
But the wait to cross the border was longer than expected, and the men, who were cousins, banged on the trunk and yelled for help as temperatures rose to above 104 degrees (40 Celsius), according to Zakov's plea agreement.
Zakov told investigators he texted the smugglers who hired him and asked what to do, and ultimately decided to ignore their pleas.
Casas-Blanco and Quiroz-Casas, both of Guanajuato, Mexico, had been caught being in the United States illegally before and had been voluntarily returned to Mexico, meaning they had waived hearings that might have led to formal deportation.
Customs officers found the pair unresponsive and were unable to revive them, according to court documents.
Zakov pleaded guilty in January to two counts of smuggling that resulted in death, and two counts of smuggling for financial gain.
At the sentencing hearing, Judge Anthony Battaglia called Zakov's decision "a horrendous choice," and noted that he was eligible for the death penalty, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California. But he added he took into consideration that Zakov had pleaded guilty early to all charges and had shown great remorse.
"Smugglers show a callous and extreme disregard for the well-being of their customers, because this crime is all about money," said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. "These men did not have to die."
(Reporting by Marty Graham; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)