Farm boss gets 30-year term

Miami Herald, The (FL) - Saturday, January 27, 2007


Abstract: A camp owner who exploited destitute, homeless men by recruiting them for his labor camp was sentenced to 30 years in prison on Friday.

The farm boss lured recruits from homeless shelters with promises of good work and steady pay, yet when the destitute arrived at the East Palatka camp of Ronald Evans Sr., they faced a different reality: a hovel-turned-open-market bazaar filled with crack, booze and cigarettes sold from the "company store." Evans docked workers' pay so steeply they pocketed just 30 cents on the dollar.

The workers, mostly black men recruited from Miami to Tampa and beyond, had become literally addicted to the camp, unable to flee until their debt was squared.

On Friday in Jacksonville federal court, Evans faced his penance: 30 years in prison, the longest sentence handed out for abuse of farmworkers in recent Florida history.

"Everyone realized this was an abhorrent act," said Paul I. Perez, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida.

Evans, 59, had been convicted in August on 57 charges of engaging in a criminal enterprise, distributing crack cocaine, dealing in contraband, spoiling the environment, violating federal farmworker statutes and more than four dozen counts of improper financial transactions.

His two labor camps have been forfeited to the government, one in Florida and the other in Newton Grove, N.C., and Evans and his wife Jequita -- his co-defendant -- must hand over $1.1 million in ill-gotten gains.

The sentence handed out by U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Corrigan nearly closes a chapter on one of the most significant federal investigations into claims that workers toiling at the bottom of Florida's rich agricultural industry are often abused and sometimes held as virtual captives.

Evans' wife and son Ronald Evans Jr., both also convicted, will be sentenced next month. On Friday, one underling was given more than five years in prison, another one a year, a third probation and a fourth awaits sentencing.

In 2003, a Miami Herald investigation, Fields of Despair, exposed the rank exploitation of
laborers at North Florida farmworker camps, including the practices of crew leaders like Evans. Growers hire these bosses to supply laborers to work the fields and to house and transport them.

The Miami Herald found that Florida had the most scofflaw farm labor contractors in the United States -- more than four of every 10.


"It was more like a slave camp. After he gets you there, he's got you," one former Evans worker, recruited from a Tampa Salvation Army shelter, told the newspaper in 2003. "A couple of guys said they owed $10,000. You might as well owe them your soul, because where can you go?"

U.S. Attorney Perez said the government's investigation was prompted by the newspaper's series.

"We jumped on what you guys exposed," Perez said after the sentencing.

In 2003, the FBI launched a criminal investigation, later to be joined by the U.S. Department of Labor, Environmental Protection Agency and others.

laborers told agents that when laborers became indebted to the Evans Labor Camp, they were not allowed to leave," court records say.

In 2005 a team of agents raided the East Palatka housing camp, gathering evidence including purple spiral notebooks listing the "line" purchases made at the camp each night after dinner and itemizing the amounts "made," "owed," and "balance" due.

"Trusted employees distributed the items and kept careful records. . . . The Evanses deducted the purchases from the
laborers' pay envelopes on Saturday, keeping a very large majority of the laborers in perpetual debt and poverty."

Evans charged the
laborers $50 a week for room and board, paid them at or near minimum wage, and then deducted hundreds or thousands for their purchases at the company store. Advances of crack cocaine were available on payday, stuffed into the workers' envelopes, the government said.

"The motive behind this business model was wholly economic, designed to drive down labor costs and to turn payment to the
laborers into another source of profit," the U.S. Attorney's Office wrote.


When Evans needed cash to buy crack, he cashed checks written by farmer clients -- hiding the true intent of the money. "Because large cash transactions must be reported by financial institutions, the defendants instructed the farmers to structure the payments to comply with the reporting requirements," the U.S. attorney wrote.

From 2001 to 2005, Evans and his wife cashed dozens of checks at just under $10,000, the threshold for detailed disclosure -- some for $9,960, $9,996 or $9,999. After his 2005 indictment, the feds say, Evans obstructed justice by persuading one farmer to lie to Internal Revenue Service agents.

The jury also convicted Evans of violating the Clean Water Act after he directed that a large PVC pipe be connected to the camp's septic tanks.

"The pipe continuously carried raw, untreated human excrement underground for some distance and then deposited it directly into Cow Creek," which flows into the St. Johns River, the feds said.

Two other counts say Evans employed unauthorized drivers to transport laborers.

On Friday Evans' lawyers argued for leniency, saying he had actually helped down-on-their luck
laborers in need of work. The government countered that he, in fact, had exploited the most vulnerable.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Sciortino of Jacksonville and Susan French of the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, and included work by the Drug Enforcement Administration and Putnam County Sheriff's Office.

Worker advocates say the prison terms send a message.

"The farmworkers in East Palatka or Fort Pierce . . . maybe will have some recognition there's a real possibility of the government doing something to stop their abusers," said Lisa Butler, an attorney with Florida Rural Legal Services who has brought lawsuits on behalf of laborers against crew bosses and growers in North Florida. Click on Today's Extras to read the fields of despair investigative series