By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - A Bulgarian fugitive convicted in the suffocation deaths of 18 Sri Lankan stowaways who died in the back of a truck he was driving nearly two decades ago has been arrested near Seattle and faces possible extradition to his home country, U.S. authorities said on Monday.
Plamen Vladimirov Trifonov, 58, was found guilty in Bulgaria of negligent homicide and human trafficking in 2002 in connection with the 1995 incident. He was sentenced to eight years in prison but did not serve his sentence.
The arrest was made at the behest of the Bulgarian government earlier this month, which has requested his extradition, federal court documents show. Trifonov is being held in a federal detention center in the city of SeaTac and is scheduled to appear for an extradition and detention hearing on November 1.
Before his arrest, Trifonov had been working as a long-haul trucker based in Washington state, said Seattle-based Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal James Adkins, who commands the interagency task force that seized him.
According to the complaint, based on information provided by the Bulgarian government, Trifonov drove a cargo truck purportedly carrying plastic goods but in reality loaded with 40 Sri Lankan nationals from Romania to Hungary in July 1995.
While en route, the air in the metal cargo area became increasingly hot and restricted, leading the passengers to puncture a hole in the roof in a vain attempt to get enough air, according to the complaint.
When Trifonov opened the door to the cargo hold several hours later and saw that many of the passengers had died, he fled the scene, abandoning the survivors, and hitchhiked back to Bulgaria, the complaint states. Eighteen of the passengers died.
It is not clear when Trifonov arrived in the United States, though the complaint makes reference to his being arrested by federal immigration officers in 2006. The United States and Bulgaria entered into an extradition agreement in 2009.
Trifonov's court-appointed attorney, Jennifer Wellman, did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Officials at the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington, D.C., were not immediately available for comment.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)