By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A 41-year-old man who was arrested after border officials found two dying Mexican men in the trunk of his car at the U.S.-Mexican border wept in court on Wednesday as he was arraigned on a federal smuggling charge.
Nicholas George Zakov appeared distraught as his court-appointed attorney entered a plea of innocent on his behalf during a brief hearing in U.S. District Court in San Diego.
Following the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat said federal investigators were still probing the incident and plan to take the evidence, including the as-yet unfinished autopsy results, to a grand jury for an indictment in the next week.
Wheat said that the two men found last week in the trunk of the orange 2012 Dodge Challenger, identified as Tarcisio Casas-Blanco and Jose Quiroz-Casas, were from the Mexican state of Guanajuato.
They had been caught in the United States illegally before and were voluntarily returned - a process where they waived hearings that might have led to formal deportation and instead were immediately returned to Mexico.
According to the complaint, when Zakov arrived at the border inspection station after waiting in a line of cars for over an hour, he said he had nothing to declare. However, he was selected at random for a secondary inspection, Wheat said and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents using a scanner on the car found irregularities in the trunk.
Upon opening the trunk, the customs agents found the two men unconscious - one was breathing and the other was not, Wheat said. Both men were later pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Zakov, who is from North Dakota but now lives in the Los Angeles area, told federal investigators that he was supposed to be paid $3,500 for smuggling the men into the United States, according to the criminal complaint against him.
(Reporting by Marty Graham; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Eric Walsh)