Oakley Christmas Tree Firm Accused of Human Trafficking – Twin Falls Times-News
OAKLEY • An Oakley-based Christmas tree business is being investigated for alleged human trafficking after several former employees sued, claiming they were forced into horrific working conditions in the remote Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. The men were threatened they would be shot and left for dead if they did not keep working, the federal lawsuit alleges.
The men were fed rotting food, forced to drink river water, and the chemicals they worked with burned their skin, says the suit, filed in federal court in the Eastern California district. The men never got a day off and were forced to work outdoors and sleep in tents no matter the weather, it says.
The suit, filed by five Mexican men who received visas to work for the company, was put on hold for 120 days starting June 26 for a pending criminal investigation by U.S. Homeland Security. The suit says the men entered the U.S. legally in April and July 2012 on H-2B visas.
This account is contained in the suit, filed April 8:
Pure Forest recruited the plaintiffs and other workers from Hidalgo, Mexico. The men were promised 40-hour work weeks at $16.47 an hour for nine months. The company also promised to pay visa and travel expenses and provide meals and residential trailers.
But the men arrived to find a much different situation, the suit claims.
After being divided under different bosses, in Gerber or Sacramento, the men were taken in groups to a remote location in the Sierra Nevadas. At the work site, they were given tents and had to share because there were not enough for all the workers. The men were forced to buy their own sleeping bags from Pure Forest for $35 each.
Pure Forest allegedly took the passports of at least two of the men once they were in Gerber.
Part of their work entailed spraying chemicals and planting trees, but the men were not trained and did not receive proper clothing or equipment for chemical work, the suit says.
The suit also claims:
Containers holding the chemicals often leaked, burning their backs and hands and irritating their eyes. At least one man became ill from the exposure and often awoke dizzy and nauseous. That man cut his hand while working and was not allowed to rest or provided medication.
Supervisors were armed at all times, and one threatened a worker, saying he would “put a bullet in his head.” Supervisors often shot their guns in the middle of the night to scare the workers. The men were frightened into believing they would be seriously harmed if they did not work quickly or if they tried to leave. Supervisors threatened to harm the men’s families in Mexico.
The men say they worked 12- or 13-hour days, working through heat and rain. One meal break was allowed, but the food was often rotten, and the men drank unfiltered river water. Butte County Public Health Department officials told investigators the water was “absolutely not acceptable” for drinking, even if it had been filtered, chlorinated or UV treated.
Sunday, which was supposed to be a day off, was spent preparing for the next week’s work: sharpening tools, mixing chemicals and washing clothes at a Laundromat until the owners banned the men because of their chemical-laden clothing. The men then were forced to buy a used washing machine from a Pure Forest supervisor with the little money they had saved.
“(The men) continued to work only because they had no other option. 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 suit says.
In May, U.S. Homeland Security investigators executed a search warrant at a home owned by Jeff Wadsworth in Gerber, part of the investigation into allegations of forced labor trafficking, involuntary servitude, fraud in labor contracting, visa fraud and mail fraud. Court documents show that a laptop, papers, identification documents, a box of .22 caliber ammunition, a single-barrel shotgun and $1,701 in cash was taken from the property. Jeff Wadsworth is also listed as living in Oakley.
Owen Wadsworth, Jose Luis Osorio Amador, Arturo Carbajal and Pedro Carbajal all were listed as foremen for the company. Only Pedro Carbajal has been charged. He pleaded not guilty May 23 to being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm and being an illegal alien in possession of ammunition. A jury trial is scheduled for Nov. 10.
“When workers expressed concerns about bears and rattlesnakes, Pedro Carbajal reportedly told workers that they should be grateful that they did not have to suffer to get to the United States like other immigrants do,” the search warrant says.
The suit also says that while the men’s pay stubs showed payment for 40 hours at $16.50 an hour, “deductions” taken out by Pure Forest for travel, food and visa expenses cut their actual wages below state and federal minimum wage requirements. After $600 visa fees, $120 to $240 for food and other fees, workers were often left with less than $100 for a two-week pay period.
In October 2012, the men were told there was no more work for them, and they were taken to a bus stop where a Pure Forest supervisor paid for bus tickets with money withheld from their last paychecks. They were warned to not tell anyone what had happened, or their families would be harmed.
The suit asks for $1 million in total damages and a jury trial.
The company has been registered as a foreign limited liability company in California since 2009. Jeff Wadsworth is the CEO and a member, and Owen Wadsworth is a member. In Idaho, the Secretary of State’s Office has Pure Forest LLC of Oakley listed as a limited liability company since 2009.
In a statement, the Wadsworths’ attorney said the suit was filed by “disgruntled employees” who failed to obtain money from the company through “frivolous injury and employment benefit claims.”
The company denies the allegations and says it soon will be cleared of any and all wrongdoing.
“We are confident that the truth will prevail,” the statement says.
As a contractor, Pure Forest provided herbicide, pesticide spraying and tree-thinning services for a California forest product company that owns 1.9 million acres of timberland in California and Washington.
According to the warrant, Pure Forest employed 30 to 40 people in the 2012 forest season.