Paso trafficking investigation details misery of elder care workers

The human-trafficking allegations against a Paso Robles couple arrested Tuesday portray a life for their employees of around-the-clock work for little to no pay, no personal space and years of unhappiness.

FBI investigators Tuesday searched the boarding houses run by Maximino “Max” and Melinda Morales after family members of one resident claimed in November that the Moraleses smuggled at least three Filipino caregivers into the United States and forced them to work in poor conditions.

The investigators interviewed caregivers who spoke about the alleged abuse and said others before them have come and gone, according to the complaint filed by the FBI.

Some were able to leave despite threats of harm to their families, the complaint said, while others stayed out of fear. Authorities haven’t yet determined how all of the workers parted ways with the Moraleses, but doctors interviewed by the FBI said that when they visited the homes, they heard of previous caregivers “who just suddenly disappeared,” according to the complaint, and that employee turnover was high.

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, FBI agents said, the caregivers who stayed could obtain certain visas awarded to crime victims.

Operating as boarding houses, the homes served seniors who don’t require skilled nursing care but need supervision and assistance with bathing, cooking and taking medicine, authorities said.

Families of the elderly were allowed to visit, authorities said, and often did.

The county Department of Social Services is providing the alleged victims assistance for shelter and other resources.

Slept in closets

The Moraleses set strict rules for the workers, the complaint said, told them to lie to outsiders and forced them to sleep in closets, hallways and windowless garages with no heat. At least one of the workers labored for six months without a day off, the complaint continued.

Melinda Morales, 46, allegedly prepared fake schedules to show state representatives who inspected the homes that the caregivers were working only 40 to 50 hours per week.

Two of the caregivers interviewed in the complaint said Max Morales allegedly paid a smuggler between $3,000 and $8,000 per person over the years to get the Filipinos into the United States with visas obtained by fake documents.

The workers were promised $1,000 per month for working in the houses to pay off fees and interest the Moraleses charged to get them into the United States, according to the complaint. Max Morales also obtained the deeds to two of the caregivers’ land in the Philippines for collateral.

When the caregivers arrived, the complaint continued, their wages were mostly garnished, leaving them with little to no personal money.

Abuse unseen

A woman whose grandmother lived in one of the homes until Tuesday said a worker once told her family that she came to the United States because it was the only way to support her family in the Philippines.

Laura Wittmann, granddaughter of a 97-year-old resident at a care facility on Starling Drive, said her family never suspected any wrongdoing.

“It was a shock to all of us,” she added.

It’s common for people harboring immigrants to make attempts to conceal the abuse so it’s not apparent to visitors, authorities said.

The 19 elderly residents who received care at the homes have been moved to their families’ homes or other care facilities, officials said, and the operations have been shut down.

Despite the Moraleses’ alleged abuse of the caregivers, the employees seemed to take good care of the residents, according to the San Luis Obispo County Department of Social Services.

The elder care boarding houses, now all closed by the county, are:

In August 2006, another caregiver left after nearly three years, the complaint said, “because his/her body could not handle the work anymore.”

Paperwork seized

Investigators seized several items from the four homes Tuesday, including travel documents and bank statements, that could link the Moraleses to fake paperwork that would have helped the caregivers get transit visas, authorities said.

According to San Luis Obispo Superior Court records, Max Morales pleaded no contest in 1995 to a misdemeanor charge of “taking personal property of another.” He was sentenced to a year of probation. There is no criminal record for Melinda Morales in the county.

News update: Suspects released

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.

Their arraignment is set for April 26 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.They are charged with harboring illegal immigrants, which carries a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in federal prison for each person smuggled.

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

Calls to their Paso Robles home were not returned Wednesday.