Politics & Government

Court documents reveal probe into complaints by Mexican forest laborers

For the 30 or 40 Mexican laborers looking for work, the pitch seemed too good to be true.

They would receive temporary work visas to get into the United States, then be driven to Northern California forests to trim trees at $16.47 an hour.

The jobs would include rent-free accommodations in trailers at the work sites, where they would be protected from the elements and fed during their 40-hour workweeks. They then would be transported back to Mexico after nine months of tree trimming.

The alleged, two-year-old agreement between the workers in Hidalgo, Mexico, and an Oakley, Idaho, firm called Pure Forest LLP is outlined in federal court documents filed in Sacramento and unsealed Tuesday.

The documents – search warrant affidavits compiled by investigators from the departments of Homeland Security and Labor – reveal a criminal probe unearthing evidence that the men allegedly ended up as virtual prisoners in forests north of Sacramento, where authorities contend they were forced to work seven days a week, sleep in tents on the ground, subsist on rotten food for which they were charged as much as $120 a week, and left to drink tainted water from a nearby creek.

When the workers complained about conditions, foremen for Pure Forest, who were allegedly armed with pistols, “threatened to shoot workers in the head and leave them in the woods if they did not work harder,” according to one affidavit filed in federal court in February and unsealed this week.

They also were allegedly told by one foreman that they “should be grateful that they did not have to suffer to get to the United States like other immigrants,” the affidavits state.

Lawyers for the owners of Pure Forest sharply dispute the allegations, saying they are untrue, came from “a few disgruntled former employees” and ballooned into a federal probe in which the company is cooperating.

“The allegations came after the disgruntled employees’ failed attempt at obtaining money from the company by filing frivolous injury and unemployment benefit claims,” Sacramento attorneys Alin Cintean and Richard Dudek said in a statement posted online. “Interviews of company employees and client foresters, who supervised the foresting operation during the time of the alleged abuse, reveal that none of the allegations are true.”

The only charges to result from the investigation so far are weapons charges against a Pure Forest foreman, Pedro Carbajal Jr. A search of his home in the Tehama County community of Gerber turned up a 12-gauge shotgun and a box of .22-caliber ammunition. A federal grand jury in Sacramento returned an indictment charging Carbajal as being an “illegal alien in possession of a firearm (and) ammunition.”

Carbajal, 30, has pleaded not guilty. He has been held in the Sacramento County jail without bail since his arrest on May 8. A trial is scheduled for Nov. 10.

The matter has been under federal investigation since January 2013, when six of the former Mexican workers told Labor Department agents that “Pure Forest exploited them” while they worked for the company between April and October 2012, according to a Labor Department agent’s affidavit.

The men were recruited under a federal program that allows entry visas to foreign citizens if an American employer cannot find U.S. citizens able and qualified to do the work, which largely involves farm labor and forestry. The program and other guidelines require employers to provide workers with adequate shelters and access to potable water at no charge, and to fully disclose the conditions of employment.

None of the workers alleging mistreatment has been identified publicly. Five of them were allowed to file suit anonymously in April against Pure Forest and two of its owners, identified as Jeff and Owen Wadsworth.

That lawsuit says the workers were left with virtually no money after months of labor because of deductions from their paychecks for everything from travel expenses and their visas to bus tickets purchased for them to use when they returned to Mexico after completion of the work.

“They were disoriented, confused, stuck in a remote part of the Sierra Nevada mountains miles from the nearest town, and they were in a foreign country where they did not speak the language,” the civil suit states. “Plaintiffs felt trapped; they believed they had no choice other than to do as they were told. They feared that they would not ever be permitted to leave.”

To date, court records show that, in addition to Carbajal’s home, authorities have executed search warrants for a residence in Garden Valley in El Dorado County and a Yahoo email account tied to Pure Forest. The documents indicate that investigators are looking into possible violations of federal laws against forced labor, trafficking via fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, and fraudulent foreign labor contracting.

According to the affidavits, Pure Forest was seeking workers willing to spend up to nine months thinning and trimming trees in forests owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, the Shasta County company that is the state’s largest private landowner.

Sierra Pacific was paying Pure Forest up to $65 an acre for services such as tree thinning, tree planting and herbicide spraying, and Pure Forest owner Jeff Wadsworth traveled to the Texas-Mexico border to bring some Mexican workers to California in the spring of 2012, the affidavits say.

The court documents say other workers flew into Sacramento from Mexico, where they were picked up by Owen Wadsworth and taken to Gerber in Tehama County.

After assembling there, the workers were taken to a Butte County campsite 90 minutes away and placed under the watch of two Pure Forest foremen, Pedro Carbajal and Arturo Carbajal, one of the affidavits recounts.

Both foremen carried guns and “threatened to shoot workers in the head” if they did not work harder, an affidavit from Homeland Security Special Agent Eugene Kizenko says.

“Sometimes at the campsite, Pedro Carbajal would start shooting a gun without warning or explanation; the workers interpreted this as an act of intimidation, which frightened them,” according to the affidavit.

The workers told investigators that some of the them slept three to a tent and had to buy $33 sleeping bags from Pure Forest. They toiled from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and three hours on Sunday, and did not receive earned wages, they claimed.

Instead, they saw their pay reduced because of deductions such as $600 for the visa they were told would be paid for, or up to $240 every two weeks for food cooked by Pedro Carbajal’s father, the court documents state.

Water at that campsite was trucked in from a nearby creek, according to an affidavit by Labor Department Special Agent Chris Collins, who also wrote that he later spoke to a Butte County health official who said drinking that water was “absolutely not acceptable.”

The workers also were ordered to spray chemicals on the trees, despite being told initially that they were only thinning trees, according to the documents. They claim they were not given proper clothing or protection from the chemicals.

“Some of the workers became ill, they believe, as a result of exposure of their eyes and skin to chemicals, resulting in vomiting, skin peeling and burning of the eyes,” the affidavit alleges.

At another campsite in El Dorado County, the affidavit says workers recalled that they were working for Owen Wadsworth, who provided little food for them.

“Due to a lack of food, the workers went fishing in a nearby river, but Owen Wadsworth advised them that they could get fined for fishing without a license,” according to the affidavit.

The Wadsworths’ attorneys contend such claims are fantasy.

“Jeff Wadsworth and Owen Wadsworth pride themselves on the well-treatment of all their employees and are surprised and saddened that a group of former employees have chosen to bring such allegations,” the lawyers said in their online statement. “While we do not know whether the claims were brought in order to extort money or to obtain victim immigration benefits, we are confident that the truth will prevail.”

The lawsuit the workers filed says their jobs ended in October 2012 and that they “were told there was no more work for them.”

“They were taken to a bus stop, where a Pure Forest supervisor paid for bus tickets with money that had been withheld from (their) last paycheck,” according to the suit.

It says the company’s supervisors sent the workers on their way with a final message: “The Pure Forest supervisors warned them not to tell anyone what happened, and they threatened to harm plaintiffs’ and the other workers’ families if they did tell anyone.”