Bulgarian fugitive, human trafficker arrested in Washington state

SEATTLE — A Bulgarian fugitive and human trafficker, convicted of the deaths of 18 Sri Lankan nationals who suffocated in the back of a cargo truck in 1995, has been arrested in Kirkland, where he had been working as a long-haul trucker, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.

Members of the Marshals-led Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force arrested Plamen Vladimirov Trifonov, 58. last week, according to a federal court docket. He is being held pending a Nov. 1 extradition and detention hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge James Donohue.

Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal James Adkins, who commands the task force, said Trifonov was arrested after federal law-enforcement authorities determined he had been living in the Seattle area.

Adkins said Trifonov immigrated illegally to the U.S. in 2005. He was arrested by U.S. immigration authorities in 2006 and was already facing deportation.

Adkins said “nobody had a clue” that he had been convicted in 2002 and sentenced to eight years in prison in Bulgaria on charges of human smuggling and manslaughter.

At the time, Adkins said, it would not have mattered, since Bulgaria and the U.S. have had an extradition treaty only since 2009. The court documents indicate Bulgaria first contacted the U.S. State Department about the extradition in May.

On July 13, 1995, Trifonov drove a truck into Hungary, the documents say.

The truck was found abandoned later that evening with 18 bodies inside. According to the documents, the container grew so hot that the passengers had tried to puncture a hole in the roof.

The complaint alleges that Trifonov discovered the bodies, abandoned the surviving passengers and hitchhiked back to Bulgaria.

The complaint, relying on documents from Bulgaria, alleges that Trifonov was stopped in July 1992 attempting to cross into Romania from Bulgaria at the Vidin checkpoint. Customs officials noticed a faulty seal on a truck supposedly containing electrical wiring, and then an officer caught sight of a person “visible through a slit in the truck’s canvas covering.”

Officials found 23 undocumented individuals in the truck, according to court documents. Trifonov was detained, the complaint says, but later released.

Three years later, in July 1995, Trifonov again drove to the Vidin checkpoint, this time in a truck carrying “sundry plastic items,” the complaint says. The truck was allowed to pass, and Trifonov allegedly drove it to the Romanian city of Karansebes, where he loaded 40 Sri Lankan nationals into the cargo container.