Alleged work visa scam suspects reject plea bargain
In a hearing Wednesday before Eagle County District Court Judge Richard Hart, Marina and Juvenal Puerto, who face theft and conspiracy charges, declined to accept an offer made to them last week. The couple will have a two-day jury trial beginning Feb. 18.
“Accepting the arrangement would have been admitting they’re guilty, and our clients insist they’re not guilty,” said Terry O’Connor, attorney for Juvenal Puerto. “They’d rather resolve the case in a trial.”
Marina Puerto, 52, and her husband, Juvenal Puerto, 62, of Avon, are out of jail on $15,000 bail each. The couple, who used to work for Vail Resorts, is accused of charging a group of Hondurans about $2,000 for work visas – documents Vail Resorts processes at its own expense.
Juvenal Puerto’s trial, originally scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday and separate from his wife’s trial, was suspended to review the offer, which wasn’t put in writing, according to district court’s files.
Both O’Connor and Jim Fahrenholtz, Marina Puerto’s attorney, wouldn’t disclose the details of the offer. But O’Connor said it included payment on restitution to the alleged victims and no jail time.
“It wasn’t the figure of the restitution they objected to,” O’Connor said. “They say they aren’t guilty. They already have lost their jobs, their home and their reputation.”
The couple declined to comment in court Wednesday.
District Attorney Jean Powers told the judge that before the February trial she might need to amend the charges for Juvenal Puerto.
“If the couple goes to trial together, the charges should be identical and they aren’t,” Powers said.
In October, the District Attorney’s Office amended Marina Puerto’s charges, adding six more victims to the one they initially had in the complaint. When the case was filed, it didn’t include all the victims named in the police reports, said District Attorney Brenda Parks, who was in charge of the case before Powers.
Juvenal Puerto’s charges include only one victim. Adding more victims will not change the sentence, but Puertos would have to pay more restitution, Parks said.
If convicted on the theft charge, a class III felony, the Puertos could get four to 16 years in jail.
“The district attorney told us about the offer on Tuesday,” said Carlos Miranda, one of the Hondurans who filed a complaint against the Puertos. “She told us they (the Puertos) were offering only $10,000 to split between us. We can’t pay everybody with that; they owe us more than $20,000. I don’t want them (the Puertos) to go to jail because the first time I came they helped me, but they need to return the money.”
The Puertos stopped working for Vail Resorts on Jan. 4, 2002, soon after the company contacted law enforcement and started an internal investigation sparked when several Honduran employees brought up allegations against them.
The Hondurans who work for Vail Resorts and have filed complaints about the Puertos are: Nevia Isabel Interiano; Patricia Aguilar; Carlos and Oscar Miranda; Obed Leiva Welchez; and Levy Contreras-Cordova.
Contreras-Cordova presented audiocassettes to Vail Resorts, and to the police, which may become crucial evidence in the case. According to an affidavit, transcripts of the tapes presented by Contreras-Cordova contain conversations that apparently implicate the Puertos in the alleged visa scam.
Contreras-Cordova said tin July 2001 he started paying the Puertos $5,500 for visas so his wife, son and niece to work in Colorado.
Some of the alleged victims have left the valley. Leiva Welchez and Oscar Miranda are back this year with visas obtained through Vail Resorts. Contreras-Cordova and Carlos Miranda live in the valley.
“The district attorney told us that if we didn’t have a receipt of our payments, it would be hard for a jury to convict them,” Contreras-Cordova said. “We want to recuperate the money. We want justice.”
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.