Federal courthouse
Federal courthouse in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

Federal charges have been filed against a man who allegedly posted online advertisements to recruit a human smuggler, leading to the deaths of three Chinese migrants whose bodies were found inside the trunk of a car parked in a San Diego residential neighborhood, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Friday.

Saad Ali Awan, 23, of El Centro, was arrested Thursday at his home for allegedly placing help-wanted ads on Craigslist to enlist someone to smuggle people across the U.S.-Mexico border.

A man who responded to the ads, Neil Edwin Valera, smuggled three Chinese nationals — including a woman and her 15-year-old son — across the border in 2019, according to federal prosecutors, who said the victims died due to a combination of asphyxiation and heat while inside the trunk of Valera’s BMW.

Their bodies were discovered on Aug. 11, 2019, after San Diego police officers responded to a report of a foul odor and blood dripping from the car, which was parked in the 2100 block of Jamie Avenue in Bay Terraces. A witness first noticed the vehicle two days prior, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Video footage showed the BMW — which was registered to Valera — crossing into the U.S. at the San Ysidro Port of Entry two days before the bodies were found.

Valera pleaded guilty to charges last year and was sentenced in March to five years in prison.

Prosecutors allege Valera’s cell phone records showed “hundreds of contacts” traced to Awan and “another conspirator.”

In addition to the fatal smuggling attempt, Awan is associated with at least 14 smuggling incidents between 2019 and 2020 within the Southern District of California, the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges.

He is charged with conspiracy to encourage aliens to enter resulting in death and bringing in aliens without presentation for financial gain.

“This is a tragic event that could have been avoided if people were more aware of the dangers of being smuggled into the U.S. by criminal organizations that value profit over human life,” said Chad Plantz, Homeland Security Investigations San Diego Acting Special Agent in Charge.