Farm labor Camp Crew Leader sentenced to 30 years in Florida Servitude Case
by CIW News Staff
Monday, Jan. 29, 2007 at 11:46 PM
"Since the early 1990s, Ronald Evans built a farm labor business by recruiting from homeless shelters and keeping workers in debt with overpriced crack cocaine and beer he sold on credit. The East Palatka man had been investigated before, was fined by the Department of Labor and paid $4,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by former workers, but he'd never been to prison. That changed Friday, when U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan sentenced Evans, 60, to 30 years in federal prison...
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Labor camps kept workers in servitude with crack- Coalition of Immokalee Workers were instrumental in helping expose abuse in North Florida and North Carolina
By Janine Zeitlin
They had heard rumblings about the labor camp for years.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers had members who toiled in potato and cabbage fields for Ron Evans Sr., the owner of the North Florida camp.
But they left after what they saw.
Workers feared reporting what transpired behind tall fences with signs that read "WARNING NO TRESPASSING."
Then the Immokalee workers rights group with a reputation for rooting out farmworker abuse and human trafficking got a call from a Miami nonprofit organization seeking its expertise: A labor camp owner was hawking crack cocaine and beer at jacked-up prices to homeless addicts for a slice of their paychecks. If they couldn't pay, men could buy drugs on credit and work it off in a North Florida camp. Men said they felt trapped.
This is what the Rev. Steven Porter, former executive director of Touching Miami with Love, an urban ministry serving Miami's homeless through Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, heard when he was among the first to find workers willing to go to authorities.
"Have any problems on the job lately?" Porter asked a client in December 2002.
The man started laughing.
"You don't want to know what's really going on," the man told Porter.
"No, we do," Porter said. "He brought in another friend and he started to tell us a story that was deeply disturbing and eye-opening."
Evans Sr. and those who helped him run the camps hit homeless shelters throughout the Southeast, including Tampa, Orlando and New Orleans, in shiny, new vans to recruit black men to work in isolated labor camps in North Florida and North Carolina, federal documents and advocates said. They dangled necessities like shelter and food before the men who had neither. All for 50 bucks a week.
They kept them with crack and debt.
Men eager to get off the Miami streets would climb inside the vans, advocates said. Some men arrived at the camp mired in debt, the pastor said.
Evans Sr. and Jequita Evans, his 45-year-old wife and camp co-owner, and those who helped operate the camps sought to lord control over workers, advocates said. They tapped what made the men weak.
"These people were offering an unending stream of crack," Porter said. "They were playing upon their weaknesses and addictions. The vast majority of the workers were African-American. Ron Evans and his family were African-American.
"One of the witnesses said he brought in a crew of Latinos and they didn't last long because they couldn't understand what he was saying and it made him nervous," he said. "The crew leader was stacking the deck to where he could control people."
Advocates from Touching Miami with Love and Coalition of Immokalee Workers, including the group's anti-slavery coordinator, Laura Germino, searched for more people to talk about the Evans camps. The Coalition hit Laundromats, gas stations and convenience stores. They talked to workers, clinic officials, priests, waitresses and growers.
What they heard pointed to servitude, a term U.S. Attorney Paul Perez of the Middle District used in a statement after a federal jury in late August found 60-year-old Evans Sr. guilty of nearly as many charges as years he has lived, after years of piecing together the case.
"Causing homeless people to incur large debts by selling them crack, cigarettes and beer forces these individuals into a form of servitude that is morally and legally reprehensible," Perez said. "My office will continue to investigate and prosecute those labor owners and operators who take advantage of the disadvantaged by such outrageous behavior."
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers began investigating after the Miami pastor contacted Bruce Jay, who spearheaded a larger effort to ferret out labor abuse among the homeless. Jay contacted the Coalition because of the group's experience fighting debt bondage and human trafficking cases. The Immokalee group counts nearly 4,000 members.
Coalition members had worked at the North Florida camps in the past. Germino brought the case to the U.S. Department of Justice, which began investigating in 2003, while the Immokalee group provided the Miami organization with guidance on investigating and dealing with such cases.
Germino said the Coalition located about 10 other witnesses and sources to talk to federal authorities through its farmworker networks stretching throughout the Southeast. Coalition members visited Evans camps in North Carolina and Florida to gather evidence for the case.
"We have informed and educated and aware members because this is an issue that the community has decided, 'We're going to take this on. We're going to fight back,' " Germino said. "And we're well-situated because, oftentimes, it's their own peers, maybe even their own family members, who are being held against their will or being held in debt. That gives you a sense of urgency to see that justice is done."
Touching Miami with Love staff unearthed at least a dozen more witnesses or victims.
Chained together, the stories told an epic of abuse.
Federal documents and court records show the following:
Evans Sr. and his wife had been running the criminal operations in North Carolina and North Florida since the early 1990s. Camp owners and operators recruited mostly African- American men to work at the camps for about minimum wage. Every weekday, after dinner, the camp gave workers the chance to buy crack, untaxed generic beer and cigarettes at a "company store." Purchases were deducted from the workers' paychecks.
Crack "advances" were available on payday.
Most workers spiraled into debt in the model designed to slash labor costs and pump profit. Trial evidence showed Evans Sr. and his wife paid workers, on average, about 30 cents on the dollar after deductions.
The owners needed chunks of cash to purchase the highly addictive drug and persuaded farmers to structure cash transactions to avoid financial reporting requirements. The North Florida crew worked for Tater Farms and Randy Byrd farms.
When news of the case broke in summer 2005 after a federal raid on the North Florida camp, many advocates were chilled that the camp could so easily exploit American citizens. Germino, of the Coalition, said the power differential between farmworkers and employers can snowball into exploitation no matter the immigration status of the workers.
"When there is an imbalance of power between the employer and his work force is when you'll see these abuses start to occur," Germino said. "That kind of climate enables exploitation to take root. When people are looking for signs workers are in debt to their employer, held against their will, suffering violent treatment, it does not just involve undocumented workers. It can be anyone, U.S. citizens, guest workers, permanent residents, regardless of their citizenship status, who are vulnerable to abuse."
Last month, a federal jury in Jacksonville found Evans Sr. and Jequita Evans guilty of a conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, a charge carrying a mandatory minimum of 10 years, records show. The jury also found Evans Sr. guilty of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise that distributed crack cocaine. For that charge, he faces a mandatory minimum of 20 years.
He was found guilty of 50 counts of structuring transactions to avoid financial reporting requirements, among other charges, and his wife was found guilty of 48 counts of avoiding reporting requirements.
Rosa Saavedra, a farmworker organizer in North Carolina, gave the Coalition of Immokalee Worker contacts for its work in North Carolina. Saavedra said she had heard about Evans camp several years ago from a woman who told of abuse. But she and other advocates didn't move forward at the time.
"Sometimes things are almost incomprehensible and it happens and your opportunity to see that is so fleeting. You may get a glimpse of it and if you get enough snapshots of it to finally see it. The Coalition are really good at looking at these snippets and knowing what the potential could be in that. They take the steps to move investigations forward," she said.
"His camp was not a hidden camp. It's what they did and how they hid it. ... He was doing this almost in plain sight."
Robert Evans, Labor Camp owner given 30 years in prison
by CIW News Staff
Monday, Jan. 29, 2007 at 11:46 PM
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