August 21, 2013

Maine restaurant owners get new trial due to slur

The Fuentes brothers are charged with using undocumented workers at three Mexican eateries.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The owners of three popular Mexican restaurants in Maine who were convicted of harboring undocumented workers have been granted a new trial because one of the jurors in their first trial used a racial slur to refer to them.

click image to enlarge

This October 2011 file photo shows Myao Perez, center, in the kitchen at Cancun Restaurant in Waterville as Hector Fuentes, back right prepares food in the background. Perez volunteered to help Fuentes keep his business open after several workers were arrested for charges of illegal immigration.

Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

The Fajita Grill in Westbrook is one of three Mexican restaurants in Maine owned by Guillermo Fuentes, 37, of Westbrook, and Hector Fuentes, 39, of Waterville.

Guillermo Fuentes, 37, of Westbrook and Hector Fuentes, 39, of Waterville were found guilty on March 18 of conspiracy, harboring undocumented aliens for profit, and aiding and abetting document fraud.

Judge D. Brock Hornby granted them a new trial, tentatively set for Oct. 7, after learning the juror made the slur to a man at the Eagles Club in Portland on March 9, the second of seven days of trial testimony, according to documents made available this week in U.S. District Court.

The man at the club who heard the slur was on probation at the time and reported the conversation to his probation officer.

He reported that the juror said he wasn't supposed to be talking about the case but that the defendants were guilty anyway, and referred to them with a racial slur, according to the judge's order.

The probation officer did not learn the juror's name until April.

The judge said in his 23-page order that he interviewed the man who was on probation and the juror, one in May and the other in June. He said the juror first denied making the slur, but ultimately admitted to it.

Hornby said in his order that the juror's comment raised two important concerns, "that at that early stage of the trial this juror had already made up his mind that the defendants were guilty, and that ethnic stereotyping affected his judgment."

The U.S. Attorney's Office says that from 2006 to 2011 the brothers helped undocumented workers at the Fajita Grill in Westbrook, the Cancun Mexican Restaurant in Waterville and the Cancun Mexican Restaurant II in Biddeford get green cards and Social Security cards.

The Fajita Grill became a hot spot in Westbrook soon after it opened, known for its fast service, lively wait staff and super-sized margaritas.

Several workers testified during the eight-day trial that they worked six or seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., with only one two-hour break. Kitchen workers said they were paid in cash. Waiters were not paid but kept their tips.

The brothers face as much as 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine on each count and may have to give up their profits if they are convicted again.

The Department of Homeland Security's investigation into employment practices at the Fajita Grill was prompted by a tip from Westbrook police Capt. Tom Roth, court documents say.

The documents say Roth told the federal agency that in routine traffic stops in April 2008, Westbrook officers pulled over Hispanic men who appeared to work at the Fajita Grill, claimed to be from Mexico and could not provide any U.S. identification.

James Bell, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security, interviewed four workers, all of whom had worked for the Fuentes brothers at a Mexican restaurant in Atlanta called El Potrillo.

They told Bell they moved in 2006 with about a dozen other employees to work for the brothers at the Fajita Grill and later at one or both of the Cancun restaurants.

Bell said they were paid $300 to $500 per week in cash for working about 60 hours.

Three of the people who were interviewed reportedly told Bell that when they arrived in Maine, they and seven or eight other undocumented workers temporarily lived rent-free in the basement of the Fajita Grill.

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com

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