NOVI (WWJ/AP) – Prosecutors say the former owners of a Detroit-area restaurant deserve seven years in prison for the deaths of five immigrants who didn’t escape a house fire.
A teenager and four men from Mexico were in the U.S. illegally, working at a restaurant owned by Roger Tam and wife Ada Mei Lei. The immigrants died in 2016 while living in the basement of a home also owned by the couple.
Tam and Lei will be sentenced Tuesday for harboring immigrants. They could face years in prison if a federal judge believes they recklessly created a high risk of death.
Defense lawyers say the government is overreaching. They say the basement wasn’t a “death chamber” but was finished with two bedrooms, a kitchen and living area. The house recently sold for $300,000.
Authorities say the fire was caused by a burning cigarette on a mattress.
Investigators say the victims who died worked 16-hour days, six days a week at Kim’s Garden, Tam’s restaurant. According to a criminal complaint, employment and financial records for Kim’s Garden revealed no indication that the five individuals were legally employed at the restaurant.
Click here to read the criminal complaint (.pdf format)
The criminal complaint alleges the Mexican nationals — ranging in age from 16 to 23 — were provided housing, paid in cash and were transported to and from the restaurant as a condition of their employment.
The basement of Tam’s home had stairs to the first floor, police said, but the basement windows were made of glass block, which would prevent any escape in an emergency. The brother of one of the victims says he saw Mei Lei disable a smoke detector due to its constant beeping.
Autopsies found all five victims died from smoke and soot inhalation, and one of them suffered burns.
The victims are 16-year-old Brayan Contreras, 18-year-old Leonel Rodriguez, 18-year-old Simeon Nunez, 23-year-old Miguel Diaz and 23-year-old Pablo Encino.
© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.