Puerto Rico guard accused in 8 inmate deaths
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Prosecutors charged a prison guard Thursday with eight counts of negligent homicide over the drowning deaths of inmates shackled inside a van engulfed by floodwaters.
Hector Cruz Santiago could face more than eight years in prison for each charge if found guilty, prosecutor Wilson Gonzalez said.
"He was never interviewed," Gonzalez said. "We have seven witnesses, a picture and some videos as part of our evidence."
Justice Department spokesman Fidel Rodriguez said Cruz was being held on an $80,000 bond. His lawyer, Ivan de Luis Miranda, did not return calls for comment.
Authorities said Cruz was driving a van carrying 10 inmates back to a prison on Puerto Rico's north coast after court hearings Monday when he tried to take a shortcut to avoid flooded areas. He decided to cross a heavily flooded street despite at least two other cars that turned back at that moment, Justice Secretary Guillermo Somoza said.
The van quickly disappeared underwater as neighbors rushed to help in the coastal town of Arecibo. They were able to rescue two inmates, Cruz and another guard.
Hector Serrano, who lives nearby, earlier accused the guards of refusing to turn over keys so rescuers could get to the drowning prisoners, who he said were screaming for help.
The other guard, Angel Cruz Acevedo, has not been charged.
Gonzalez, the prosecutor, said he briefly questioned Cruz Acevedo but cut the interview short because the answers he was getting were inconsistent with the evidence already collected.
Both guards have been driving vans for the Corrections Department for nine years, said Juan Gonzalez, president of the United Corrections Alliance union.
"They never had any prior incidents," he said in a phone interview.
A video that was leaked to the media late Wednesday shows one of the guards leaning into a hole that rescuers had cut into the van's roof to rescue prisoners. The guard was not identified, but the union leader said it showed the guard did try to help.
"They are not the animals that they were portrayed to be," he said.
The inmates who died faced charges including robbery, domestic violence and drug possession. Two of them were scheduled to be freed the day they died, Corrections Department spokeswoman Sheila Padin said.
One of them was 42-year-old Juan Huertas Cumba.
"Justice needs to be served," his father, Juan Huertas Diaz, said in an interview Wednesday.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)