COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – The third of four people accused of smuggling teens into the U.S. and keeping them as virtual slave laborers at an Ohio egg farm has pleaded guilty to charges in a case that brought national attention to the exploitation of young immigrants fleeing unrest in Central America.
More than a year after federal agents raided a remote, dilapidated trailer park in central Ohio and rescued 10 young Guatemalans, three of the defendants have now taken plea agreements and are awaiting sentencing, which has not been scheduled. The fourth is awaiting trial.
The defendants were at the center of what prosecutors said was a scheme to take custody of the victims at the border, then force them to work at the farm and hand over most of their earnings to pay for their passage to the U.S.
Most recently, Pablo Duran Jr., 23, accused by federal prosecutors of setting up a company to hire and manage the victims' employment at the farm, pleaded guilty in December to a single count of harboring an illegal alien. His attorney declined to comment.
Prosecutors said Aroldo Rigoberto Castillo-Serrano, a Guatemalan who is in the U.S. illegally, engineered a scheme to bring the teens and young men to this country. In some cases, prosecutors say, he made victims' family members sign over deeds to their property in Guatemala to pay for transporting the boys, with assurances they would be enrolled in school here. That never happened.
The scheme was going on in 2014 as the U.S. immigration system was being overwhelmed by an unprecedented flow of unaccompanied children fleeing unrest in Central America. Prosecutors say Castillo-Serrano took advantage of the situation to pluck them out of custody at the Mexican border.
U.S. immigration policy dictates that unaccompanied minors trying to escape dangerous situations can't be turned away. Once the teens were in federal custody, false paperwork was submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to the indictment issued in July. Then the conspirators took custody, promising to provide shelter the teens and get them to court dates that would determine their immigration status.
Instead, paid drivers known as "coyotes" whisked the boys to Ohio, where they essentially went underground, living in broken down trailers and working long hours.
Castillo-Serrano pleaded guilty in August to forced labor conspiracy, forced labor, witness tampering and encouraging illegal entry into the country. His attorney declined comment.
Conrado Salgado Soto, 52, also accused of running a company that managed the employment of the victims, pleaded guilty in August to aiding and abetting the trafficking and harboring of aliens; and encouraging illegal entry. His attorney declined to comment.
Prosecutors say Ana Angelica Pedro Juan, 21, was involved in forcing the victims to live in the run-down trailers in Marion, collecting money from them and at times threatening and punishing them. She's charged with forced labor conspiracy, forced labor, witness tampering, and making false statements. Her trial is pending. Her attorney did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Trillium Farms, which produces more than 2 billion eggs per year at various farms around central Ohio, said it was unaware of what was happening with the contractors and the workers and hasn't been charged.
Authorities aren't saying what has become of the victims and whether they're still in the U.S.
"We're not commenting on their location other than saying they are being supported and their needs are being met," U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Michael Tobin said in an e-mail.