Two arrested in Paso Robles for allegedly trying to smuggle Filipinos into the U.S.

Tribune photo by Tonya Strickland

The owners of four Paso Robles elder care homes allegedly used the promise of a better life to lure at least three people from the Philippines to work as caregivers, then forced them to labor for little or no pay and threatened to kill their families if they fled.

FBI investigators searched the homes run by Maximino “Max” and Melinda Morales of Paso Robles on Tuesday after allegations of human trafficking surfaced late last year. The 19 elderly residents have been moved to their families or other care facilities, said Tracy Buckingham, assistant director for the San Luis Obispo County Department of Social Services.

The couple was set for release as of Tuesday night after posting bail from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, said Laura Eimiller of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office.

A judge set bail at $75,000 for Max Morales, 44, and $50,000 for Melinda, 46. Max Morales will be subject to electronic monitoring, Eimiller said.

Their arraignment is set for April 26 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Operating as boarding houses with four to five residents in each, the homes served seniors who don’t require skilled nursing care but need supervision and assistance bathing and taking medicine, Buckingham said.

The businesses are licensed — two through Max Morales and two through Melinda Morales — but the state is looking into whether to revoke the licenses.

‘Very good care’

Two family members of a facility resident reported suspected abuse by the couple to the FBI in November.Despite the Moraleses’ alleged abuse of the caregivers, “the employees … seemed to take very good care of the residents,” Buckingham said.

Neighbors said the Moraleses seemed friendly in 2001, when they moved with two young children and a puppy into a home on Starling Drive that would later become a care facility.

The Moraleses’ first boarding house opened in 2001, and the other three followed, according to the state.

Ted and Carol Beatty said they no longer saw them when the influx of elderly residents began. The couple would often wave hello, “but the workers never waved back,” Ted Beatty said.

The Moraleses instructed the caregivers to never talk to neighbors, according to the complaint against the couple. Caregivers wouldn’t make eye contact with the families of residents at first, according to the complaint, and they were also taught to fear police and public transportation because those would lead to deportation.

The Beattys rarely saw caregivers outside, they said, and when the caregivers returned from an errand, they would quickly close the garage door.

Documents seized

Agents executed federal search warrants Tuesday at the Starling Drive home and three others that had been serving as elder care boarding houses, authorities said. They seized several items, including travel documents and bank statements.

Agents removed large black garbage bags of items from 1072 Sleepy Hollow Road but declined to say what was inside.The names, ages and genders of the alleged victims were not disclosed, but authorities said they are all adults.

Depending on the outcome of the investigation and a trial, FBI agents said, the caregivers could obtain certain visas awarded to crime victims.

The county is providing them assistance for shelter and other resources.

According to the FBI, the Moraleses are charged with harboring illegal immigrants, which carries a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in federal prison per person smuggled.

Several charges will likely be added against the Moraleses — including trafficking with peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor, the FBI said.

Before the human-trafficking allegations were made, the four homes were in “good standing” with the state, officials said. Minor citations were issued for not having proper over-the-counter medications for one patient and use of improper eviction procedures with another, according to the Department of Social Services.