Charges dropped in human trafficking case

Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 5:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 5:25 p.m.

At the request of federal prosecutors, all criminal charges have been dismissed against three people indicted in July 2010 on human trafficking charges alleging they forced dozens of Haitian nationals to work on Alachua County farms.

A related federal civil case against an area farm owner is scheduled to be resolved in mid-February.

Adriana Isabel Vieco, an attorney for the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., filed the motion to have the charges dropped against Cabioch Bontemps, 35, a longtime farm worker in the LaCrosse area, and Miami-area residents Willy Paul Edouard, 48, and Carline Ceneus, 33.

Vieco was appointed to prosecute the case last year, several months after another federal prosecutor, Susan French, sought the indictments.

French was prosecuting a similar case in Hawaii last year when she was removed from the case by justice officials. French was dismissed from the case because of an unspecified health concern and after a defense attorney said the grand jury that indicted his client had been given incorrect information about a federal law.

Carline Ceneus' attorney, Lloyd Vipperman of Gainesville, said the decision to dismiss the local case was likely the result of a change in federal labor laws that was passed in 2008 but did not take effect until 2009, after the Haitians had reached the United States. It was the same law that published reports said French misstated to the grand jury in Hawaii.

Apparently, the indictments were made on a law that was not yet in effect.

Vipperman said that beginning in 2009, those who were arranging for guest workers to come to the United States could not pre-charge recruiting fees for their services.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Stephan P. Mickle signed an order Wednesday afternoon directing that all the charges be dropped and directing the federal clerk's office to close the criminal case. Mickle's order did not provide any explanation for granting the motion.

Vieco declined to comment Wednesday on her request that the charges be dropped and referred questions to a spokeswoman for federal prosecutors who could not be reached for comment.

The attorney representing Edouard, Huntley Johnson of Gainesville, said he could not explain the dropped charges.

"As much as I would like to, I can't comment on what their (prosecutors') motivation was," Johnson said.

When the indictments were issued, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the charges were filed because 34 workers were persuaded to travel from Haiti to Florida to take jobs they were told were well-paying.

"Ceneus and Eduoard arranged for the workers to pay substantial recruitment fees, procured by loan sharks and often secured by the victims' property," wrote Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The unfinished business remaining in the local case is a federal civil case against Steven Davis, the produce farmer who employed the Haitian workers. Federal court documents show he is due back in court on Feb. 17.

"I don't want to go too far in saying something, but we are innocent," Davis told The Sun on Wednesday afternoon. "We are a small, local business trying to stay in business, but we are almost out of business due to these circumstances."

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