Mexican restaurateurs found guilty of harboring illegal aliens, abetting document fraud

Posted March 18, 2013, at 2:17 p.m.
Last modified March 18, 2013, at 4:42 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Brothers and restaurateurs Hector and Guillermo Fuentes were found guilty Monday of multiple counts of harboring illegal aliens to work in their three Mexican eateries, as well as helping the undocumented workers obtain fraudulent papers.

The 12-member jury deliberated for just longer than three hours before rendering its verdict. Each brother was found guilty of conspiracy to harbor undocumented aliens for profit and aiding and abetting document fraud.

Hector Fuentes was additionally found guilty on three counts of harboring undocumented aliens for profit, while Guillermo Fuentes was found guilty of two counts of that charge.

Each man faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Sentencing will be scheduled at a later date.

A similar case is pending against the owners of Chinese buffet restaurants in federal court in Bangor.

During closing statements Monday at the federal courthouse in Portland, attorneys representing the Fuentes brothers told jurors that several key witnesses against the restaurateurs — specifically former eatery workers who lived and worked in the country illegally — could not be trusted.

However, federal prosecutors countered that defense arguments against the credibility of the former workers represents a “distraction” aimed at clouding the issue in jurors’ minds.

The trial began on March 7. The jury, made up of eight women and four men, went into deliberations early Monday afternoon after closing statements were delivered during the morning session.

The Fuentes brothers, who are lawful permanent residents of the United States, own the Fajita Grill Mexican Restaurant in Westbrook, the Cancun Mexican Restaurant in Waterville and the Cancun Mexican Restaurant II in Biddeford. The restaurants remain open.

At least four illegal workers cooperated with authorities during the past several years and have continued to live and work in Maine. Federal prosecutors said in their trial brief that 14 former restaurant employees could be called to testify against the brothers.

However, defense attorneys in the case noted that most of those witnesses were given lesser punishments for their illegal activity, or were given “substantial public benefit” designations to allow them to stay in the United States longer to allow them to testify.

“Think about how easy it would be for them all to concoct a story because they want to stay in this country,” said attorney Edward Wade, representing Guillermo Fuentes, during his closing argument Monday morning. “These witnesses are under a lot of pressure, and one can understand why. They don’t want to go back to Mexico.”

Leonard Sharon, representing Hector Fuentes, made similar arguments. He echoed Wade’s comments about how many of the workers-turned-witnesses held jobs at multiple businesses in several states before ending up in Maine working for the Fuentes brothers’ restaurants.

“They lied to this person, they lied to that person, they lied to McDonald’s, they snuck their kids [into the country], and now they want you to believe they’re telling you the truth,” Sharon told jurors.

Both defense teams argued that many of the workers had histories of using fraudulent documents to get jobs before the Fuentes brothers hired them, and Wade noted that two of the workers who testified against the brothers were fired by Guillermo Fuentes for inappropriate behavior at one of the restaurants.

Wade told jurors that “sloppy bookkeeping” and having suspicions about some employees’ residency statuses did not constitute harboring illegal aliens.

“They were driving all over the place fooling everyone,” Wade said of the workers and their past jobs Monday. “Why couldn’t they have fooled these [brothers]?”

The brothers allegedly also housed illegal aliens in leased properties in Westbrook, Waterville and Biddeford. Prosecutors additionally alleged the men helped workers obtain fake Social Security and permanent resident cards.

But defense attorneys argued during the trial, and in closing statements Monday, that the housing rentals represented the “humanistic thing to do” for workers who were new to town and needed time to get established. They also argued that the openness of the housing arrangements and payroll records, among other things, shows the Fuentes brothers had nothing to hide from police.

Both Wade and Sharon pointed out to jurors that the definition of the charge of harboring illegal aliens includes a clause referring to providing places to stay “in which authorities are unlikely to be seeking” the illegal aliens.

The workers, they argued, lived openly in the Waterville, Westbrook and Biddeford communities, interacted freely with customers and business clients, and shopped at other businesses in the areas.

“Why did they bring attention to themselves and put them on the payroll?” posed Wade. “Why didn’t they just pay them under the table or use fake names?”

But federal prosecutors countered that the housing arrangements and payroll documents were ways of keeping authorities from becoming suspicious of their operation, by creating what Assistant U.S. Attorney Julia Lipez called Monday an “air of legitimacy” around the workers.

Lipez also told jurors that an attack on the credibility of the workers is a “red herring.” She told the jury during her final rebuttal, just before the jury broke for lunch and subsequently began deliberations, that each witness does not individually have to be believed “beyond a reasonable doubt” as long as collectively they build a strong case.

She added that additional evidence, such as bank statements, corroborate their testimonies. Prosecutors alleged that when the brothers issued paychecks to workers, the restaurant owners instructed workers to endorse their paychecks and return them. The checks then allegedly were deposited back into the restaurants’ checking accounts.

“The particular witnesses may have committed crimes,” Lipez told jurors Monday. “But they’re not the ones on trial here.”

The Fuentes brothers came to the attention of authorities in April 2008 after Westbrook police stopped several Hispanic men who worked at the Fajita Grill Mexican Restaurant in Westbrook, but had no U.S. identification documents, according to court documents.

Both men remain free on $100,000 bail secured by $10,000 cash, according to court documents.

BDN staff writer Judy Harrison contributed to this story.

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