(Breaking news: Updates being made)
SALEM, Ohio — A federal grand jury has charged three people with smuggling Guatemalan minors into the United States and forcing them to work at egg farms in Ohio, owned by Trillium Farms.
A fourth defendant was charged with harboring illegal aliens as part of a 15-count superseding indictment.
The indictments were announced by Steven M. Dettelbach, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio; Vanita Gupta, of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division; Stephen D. Anthony, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Cleveland office; and Marlon Miller, of Homeland Security Investigations for Ohio.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the defendants and their associates smuggled workers as young as 14 or 15 from Guatemala to the United States, falsely promising them that they would be able to attend school in the United States. The defendants transported the minors to a trailer park in Marion, Ohio, where they ordered them to live in dilapidated trailers and to work at physically demanding jobs at Trillium Farms for up to 12 hours a day.
The work included cleaning chicken coops, loading and unloading crates of chickens, de-beaking chickens, and vaccinating chickens, according to the indictment.
Trillium Farms says that the fault lies with an employee contractor, which has been terminated. The farm was previously known as Ohio Fresh Eggs, and Buckeye Eggs, and has about 450 people who work for it.
“It is clear in this case we were misled by the contracting company, which intended to act illegally,” said Chuck Renken, director of human resources, in a released statement.
“Caring for our employees, doing the right thing and abiding by employment laws is our obligation and our responsibility, and we expect the same standards to be held by outside companies we employ for contracted services,” Renken said.
“When federal officials made us aware of a possible employment issue with one of our contractors, we immediately cooperated and assisted in the investigation. That work led to the swift identification and same-day rescue of the employees believed to be working against their will,” he continued.
The defendants (contractors) threatened workers with physical harm and withheld their paychecks in order to compel them to work, according to the attorney’s office.
The indictment lists eight victims under the age of 18 and two adult victims.
Indicted are: Aroldo Castillo-Serrano, 33, of Pecos, Texas; Conrado Salgado Soto, 52, of Raymond, Ohio; Ana Angelica Pedro, 21, of Columbus and Juan Pablo Duran Jr., 23, of Marysville, Ohio.
Aroldo Castillo-Serrano, Conrado Salgado Soto, and Ana Angelica Pedro Juan are charged with a labor-trafficking conspiracy. Castillo-Serrano is also charged with 10 individual counts of forced labor; Salgado Soto and Pedro Juan are charged in eight of those 10 counts. Castillo-Serrano and Salgado Soto are also charged with harboring illegal aliens, as is an additional defendant, Pablo Duran Jr.
Castillo-Serrano and Pedro Juan are charged with witness tampering for trying to persuade another person to give false information to the FBI. Pedro Juan herself is also charged with lying to the FBI.
“This indictment charges the defendants with putting profits ahead of common decency,” said Dettelbach, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. “Human beings are not commodities like farm products. Those who are somehow confused about that difference need to learn that lesson.”
According to Anthony, of FBI-Cleveland, “These defendants preyed upon vulnerable children and families. This investigation revealed how they used threats, humiliation, deprivation and other means to keep these minors working and enriching the defendants.”
Each of the 11 trafficking counts and the witness tampering count carries a sentence of up to 20 years. Each count of harboring illegal aliens and lying to the FBI carries a sentence of up to 5 years.
An indictment is an accusation, and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty, according to the DOJ. The investigation is ongoing.
The case is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cleveland Office, Mansfield Resident Agency; and the Department of Homeland Security. The case is being jointly prosecuted by Civil Rights Division Trial Attorney Dana Mulhauser and Assistant U.S. Attorney Chelsea Rice.
Trillium says its hiring guidelines are strict, and that it participates in all federal programs to verify eligibility for worker employment.
“Since this situation occurred, we have expanded independent and regular auditing of our employment records, have updated our hiring and training protocols, and are requiring all contractors to sign in with proper identification at a central location,” Renken said.
STAY INFORMED. SIGN UP!
Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!