Feds: Illegal aliens crammed into Brewer ‘safe house’

Federal agents enter the Twin Super Buffet in Brewer on Wednesday, November 16, 2011.
Federal agents enter the Twin Super Buffet in Brewer on Wednesday, November 16, 2011. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 17, 2011, at 12:25 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2012, at 2:06 p.m.

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Women run from the Twin Super Buffet in Brewer on Wednesday, November 16, 2011. Federal agents were seen removing boxes earlier.
Women run from the Twin Super Buffet in Brewer on Wednesday, November 16, 2011. Federal agents were seen removing boxes earlier.

BREWER, Maine — The federal immigration and money laundering investigation that led to a raid Wednesday of the Twin Super Buffet and two homes in Brewer, as well as others around the state, continued Thursday.

“They processed several individuals,” Brewer police Lt. Chris Martin said of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents who led the raids.

A total of seven Brewer police officers assisted the federal agents, the lieutenant said, adding that he was not authorized to release information about the federal case, including whether those “processed” were charged.

Martin referred all questions to customs officials, who did not immediately return messages left for comment.

The Brewer restaurant was closed for a short time during the raid but reopened Wednesday night and again on Thursday.

Both of the homes raided on Wednesday — 278 Elm St. and 193 Wilson St. — were dark and locked up tight on Thursday. The Elm Street residence was a “safe house,” where illegal aliens who worked at the local restaurant lived crammed together, according to an 18-page complaint filed late Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Portland.

Local police and federal agents raided Chinese buffet restaurants in Brewer, Lewiston, Waterville and the Portland area on Wednesday — reportedly operated by members of the family-run “Zhang Operation” — shutting at least four of them down temporarily.

Zi Qian Zhang reportedly is the leader of the Zhang Operation along with his wife, Ai Hui Lu, both of Massachusetts, according to the federal complaint.

Brewer police and federal agents raided the restaurant in the Twin City Plaza, the Elm Street “safe house” and a second residence on Wilson Street that is owned by a member of the Zhang family.

An empty pack of foreign cigarettes with gold writing on the front lay discarded outside the Wilson Street home on Thursday and a neighbor said he often saw people coming and going from the building.

The results of an investigation by the city’s code enforcement into living conditions at the Elm Street residence, conducted on Feb. 7, 2006, led federal agents to begin their own investigation, the court document states.

“About 18 suspected illegal immigrants were believed to be residing in the garage at the Brewer Safe House” in deplorable living conditions, the federal document states.

The Elm Street “safe house” was raided by federal agents on July 2, 2007, and “they found and arrested three illegal Asian and Hispanic aliens, living in squalid living conditions, some in the garage,” the court documents state.

A neighbor said she watched as agents and police raided the home on Wednesday and added that it is no secret a lot of people lived there. She also added that her neighbors were quiet and never caused any problems.

Federal agents started an investigation in February 2006 into whether Zhang was hiring illegal Asian and Hispanic immigrants, housing them in crowded and “deplorable” safe houses and laundering money, court documents state.

Federal investigators say the Zhang Operation engaged in money laundering through its buffet restaurant operations in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the federal complaint states.

Little information was released about the results of the raids — which were conducted at Twin Super Buffet in Brewer, Super China Buffet in Waterville and New China Buffet in Lewiston — including whether anyone was arrested or charged.

A fourth location, Kon Asian Bistro on Brighton Avenue in Portland, also was surrounded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents’ vehicles, according to the Press Herald. Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Clark said Wednesday afternoon that he could not comment on whether an investigation was under way or if anyone had been charged or taken into custody. He did not return a message left for comment on Thursday.

BDN reporter Dawn Gagnon contributed to this story.

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