Police officer's company had ties to defendant in Wisconsin human trafficking case

By Maria Perez - MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL - June 10, 2019

MOULTRIE, Ga. -  A Georgia police officer is behind a company linked to one of the main defendants indicted last month with conspiring to force Mexican men to work on Wisconsin farms. 

Fernando U. Hernandez, a Moultrie Police Department sergeant, is the only officer of G&H Harvesting, a company that federal court filings tie to one of the five defendants in the alleged Georgia-based human trafficking scheme. 

The federal case is centered on two companies — Garcia & Sons Harvesting and C&D Harvesting — that brought seasonal farm workers from Mexico to work on farms in Georgia. While the workers were authorized to work there, many were illegally sent to work on farms in Wisconsin in 2016, according to the charges. 

Since 2017, G&H Harvesting has recruited workers and provided them for Georgia farms it has as clients. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review of federal documents shows the company hired hundreds of farm workers in the midst of a federal investigation into the other two firms.

Hernandez acknowledged his ownership of G&H Harvesting in an interview, but denied any wrongdoing. He has not been charged in the case, which was filed in late May in federal court in Milwaukee.

Court documents filed in Georgia show that at least two farm workers told investigators that Saul Garcia — one of the five defendants — was in charge of their G&H crews in 2018.

One worker said Garcia instructed him to sign a statement that said — falsely — he had been reimbursed for all his travel expenses. Another was told to sign a false statement saying he had not paid a recruiter or put up any collateral to obtain his position working in the United States.

Both scenarios were outlined in a court document filed by federal prosecutors in Georgia that summarizes interviews with more than a dozen Mexican workers. It was filed in an effort to continue holding the five defendants, but a judge allowed their release May 31.

Those charged are Saul Garcia, 49; Saul Garcia Jr., 26; Daniel Garcia, 28; and Consuelo Garcia, 45, all of whom were based in Moultrie, Georgia. Maria Remedios Garcia-Olalde, 52, is a Mexican national. 

Some of the defendants’ workers labored on the farms of Franksville, Wisconsin-based Borzynski Farms, which has operations in Wisconsin and Georgia.

Borzynski Farms officials say they did not know the workers may have been abused and stopped contracting with companies tied to the defendants. Borzynski Farms wasn't listed as a client by G&H Harvesting.

Under investigation

Under the scheme, workers had to pay hundreds of dollars to recruiters to get their jobs, with some told they could lose their family's property in Mexico if they refused to work. It is illegal for such recruiters to charge workers for placement in the U.S.

The charges say the defendants took the workers' passports so that they couldn’t leave, gave them false IDs and used threats to force them to work under bad conditions.

The workers were punished or left without medical attention when they got sick, were forced to work long hours with only one break — during lunch — and were told not to talk with anyone outside the company, according to the filing.

The case limits its accusations of labor trafficking to the period from July to November 2016. But the indictment charges Saul Garcia with two counts of witness tampering related to his behavior toward the two workers from G&H Harvesting — the firm owned by Hernandez, the Moultrie police officer.

While the workers were working for Hernandez’s company in 2018, Saul Garcia and the family companies were under investigation by a Wisconsin-based federal grand jury. The two workers told prosecutors Garcia pressed them to lie to the grand jury.

The federal investigation into labor trafficking started in late 2016. After it did, U.S. Department of Labor documents show Saul Garcia and the other defendants stopped applying to bring in the seasonal farm workers through their companies.

The next year, Hernandez’s company was authorized by the labor department to bring 206 foreign farm workers to Georgia farms. The farms included in the request were three of the four growers that Garcia-related companies had listed as clients a year earlier.

When reached by a Journal Sentinel reporter, who summarized the allegations made by workers, Hernandez said a lot of the claims were false, but did not specify which ones. In late May, a reporter interviewed current workers in Georgia about their conditions.

Hernandez noted none of the current workers interviewed had voiced similar complaints and said it would be impossible for him to force them all to lie. He then ended the phone call and didn’t respond to follow-up calls, a voice message or an email that attached the court filing, asking him to elaborate on his response to the allegations.

The chief of the Moultrie Police Department didn’t respond to calls or an email about the case.

Hernandez started working for the Moultrie Police Department in 2007, according to Georgia's Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. He resigned in April 2014, but was hired again in 2015 and became a sergeant in 2017.

Wisconsin federal prosecutors didn't return emails inquiring whether they are investigating Hernandez or if he is cooperating with authorities. 

Kenneth B. Gales, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, said their policy is to not comment on such matters. 

The boss

Hernandez has filed three different petitions to bring hundreds of foreign farm workers to Georgia through G&H Harvesting — in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

One of the workers who had worked for the defendants and one of their companies in 2015 and 2016 told federal prosecutors that when he came back to Georgia in 2018 through G&H Harvesting, he later learned the firm "was being run by Garcia Sr., even though someone else (Fernando Hernandez) was nominally the owner.” 

The worker, identified only as AV-14 (adult victim 14) in the document, said he did not have to pay any recruitment fees, but his movements in Georgia were restricted.

He also told prosecutors that in October 2018, while working for G&H, Garcia called a meeting of all workers and read aloud a letter saying everyone had been reimbursed for their expenses associated with their travel to work in the United States and instructed everyone to sign.

“AV-14 felt that the statement was not true, but everyone present signed because Garcia told them to, and although nominally he was not the owner of the company, he was in charge of the G&H crews working in Georgia in 2018,” the court filing says.