He did notice that the license plate light was hanging loose, so he watched as the vehicle crossed into a 30 mph speed zone on the U.S. Highway 59 route through town. The driver was still going 40 when he crossed into the slower zone.
By then, Baron said he realized that the vehicle was loaded down with more passengers than normal. So he followed the car, making sure he did not try to stop it until the driver made it through the residential areas west of downtown.
“I thought if I stopped them there, they might bail and run into the neighborhoods,” Baron said not long after making the stop.
He waited until the vehicle approached the intersection of the U.S. Highway 181 Business Route before turning on his emergency lights.
The car pulled into the parking lot of a pawn shop, and Baron stepped up to the driver’s side door before anyone could step out of the vehicle.
What he found inside the car surprised every other officer who arrived at the scene within minutes. Besides the driver, the vehicle carried 13 passengers.
Baron said four individuals were in the front seat alone. One of the 10 male passengers was squeezed into the seat between two others.
All ranged in age from 17 to about 51. They were wearing wet clothes and covered with sand. And all had apparently come into the United States illegally.
“One of them said they has been picked up north of Falfurrias,” Baron said.
He assumed they had walked through the night from Mexico to the South Texas town.
The driver, Ponce Valeriano, was turned over to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents. Baron said he was wanted out of Michigan.
The officer said he was not sure what ICE agents would do to the driver. They could prosecute him for the federal offense of human trafficking or they could opt to send him back to Michigan.
The others were to be turned over to ICE agents and returned to Mexico.
Baron said the occupants told him they were headed to Houston to find jobs.
“They were only three hours away,” he said.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.