TCA 'Highway Angel' honor revoked: Driver did not rescue 'kids in cages' from human traffickers

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Reporter Ed Payne of the website last week published a bit of a fact check of the Truckload Carriers Association's designation of a driver originally ID'd only by his first name, "Michael," as a Highway Angel, part of that long-running recognition effort honoring acts of kindness and heroism at the roadside.

The driver in this case claimed to have tipped New Mexico State Police to human trafficking under way one lonely night in June at a rest area along I-10. TCA's account aired on Overdrive last month at this link, featuring the driver's tale of several children seen removed from what he called a padlocked cage under a tarp in the back of a pickup, then locked back in after a bathroom break. 

Turns out, what the truck driver, ID'd by Payne as Michael Stauffer, thought he saw was simply incorrect. 

Ray Wilson, New Mexico Department of Public Safety Public Information Officer, had responded to Ed Payne's request to verify the supposed instance of trafficking by tracking down details of the stop. The pickup Michael Stuaffer called in was being driven by the mother of the children in the truck's bed -- they weren't in a "cage," either, but marginally protected by a covered utility-bed structure made of wood, metal and the tarping aforementioned. 

Viewed through a basic on-highway-safety lens, Wilson commended the truck operator for calling in the tip, though noted the children were en route from Mexico back to their home in Phoenix, Arizona. "Turns out it was a mom and, I believe, it was her brother and four children," just three of whom "were in the back of the truck," Officer Wilson said.

All had passports that checked out. The driver, the mother, "was given seatbelt citations for the kids that weren’t buckled up," Wilson added, and "they were moved back into the cab" of the truck before it went on its way. 

What were they doing in the bed? Trying to sleep, the mother told officers -- there were apparently mattresses in the truck's bed, Wilson noted.  

For Stauffer's part, the truck driver appeared to be as surprised as the folks at TCA in a video posted last week to his Youtube page in which he claims his read on the situation in the moment -- including at the scene of the eventual stop -- simply misled him. He says he left the scene before the state police finished their investigation of the pickup's occupants and never heard another word from them.

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There's a reason for that, too, Officer Wilson suggested. It took a long time for him to find the stop in question in New Mexico's records when Payne originally reached out weeks ago because "it just got logged as a routine traffic stop," he said. As a public affairs officer for the entire state Department of Public Safety, Wilson noted, "I definitely would have been notified if 15 kids were being trafficked." That's a number Stauffer had offered to other outlets like that of the Mutha Trucker Youtube channel.  

In short, as the old adage goes, if it sounds a little too good to be true, it's probably false. "It does sound like [Stuaffer] embellished the details a bit," Wilson said. 

Stauffer sticks by his own adage, though: "If you see something, say something." 

From a simple safety standpoint, Officer Wilson agreed. "it’s a good thing that [the truck driver] called it in. You see something like that," three kids sleeping in a pickup bed about to embark on a trip at highway speeds, "you definitely want to call law enforcement."

TCA Vice President of Membership and Outreach Zander Gambill offered the following statement, officially revoking the Highway Angel designation in this case: "TCA’s Highway Angels program recognizes truck drivers who have gone out of their way to help others and save lives on the road, and we realize their impact on the industry and communities across the country. We were disappointed to hear of the illegitimacy of a story which we reported on August 16 concerning an incident along I-10 with professional driver Michael and have revoked his Highway Angel title. We want to protect the integrity of these important awards and are actively working to ensure the legitimacy of future Highway Angels’ stories."

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