NOVI, Mich. (AP) – A 16-year-old boy was among five Mexican nationals who died in a house fire in suburban Detroit over the weekend, authorities said Tuesday as they tried to determine the immigration status of the deceased.
Police have confirmed four of the five worked at Kim's Garden in Novi and all lived in the basement of their restaurant owner's house where they perished Sunday morning.
Novi Public Safety Director David Molloy said preliminary autopsy results show the cause of death was smoke and soot inhalation and that the origin of the fire was a mattress in the basement.
The cause is undetermined, though investigators are looking at smoking, Molloy said.
He said the five were found in the basement that had stairs to the first floor but windows made of glass block, which would prevent any escape in an emergency.
Molloy said the blaze and deaths appear to be accidental but that investigators aren't ruling out charges, which could include negligence, code violations or human trafficking.
"We have many, many more days of investigating to do before we can take it to that step," he said.
Police identified four of the victims and are working with the Mexican consulate in Detroit to identify the fifth man who was believed to have been in his early 20s and might have also worked at the restaurant.
The four identified were: Leonel Rodriguez, 18; Miguel Diaz, 23; Brayan Contreras, 16; and Simeon Nunez, 18.
Molloy said his department is working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to figure out whether the five were in the U.S. illegally.
The home was owned by a restaurateur Roger Tam, who police said called 911 on Sunday morning to report the fire. The Associated Press left a message at the restaurant for Tam.
The treatment of immigrants who work in restaurants and live together has attracted attention nationwide, but most recently in the Chicago area, where Illinois' attorney general filed a lawsuit in November to stop alleged civil rights violations in housing and pay. Molloy said his department hasn't dealt with Tam or his restaurant on such matters, and he isn't aware of a broader problem in the suburb or surrounding area with the treatment of immigrant employees.
Molloy said Tam called 911 after arriving at the home, likely to pick them up and drive them to the restaurant. Tam told investigators that he owns another home in the city, and that his family "bounces back and forth as to where they stay," Molloy said.
He added that police are in touch with "distant relatives" in Michigan of those who died, but are not concerned about their immigration status.