By Bill Petzold
CARO — Crime doesn’t pay, but sometimes fighting it does.
Michigan State Police Caro Post Commander Lt. Mitch Krugielki and Third District Public Information Officer Lt. Brian Cole accepted a check Thursday awarding more than a quarter million dollars in funding to the Michigan State Police and Huron County Sheriff’s Office for their roles in the investigation of a Bad Axe dairy farm that employed 78 illegal immigrants over a seven-year time period.
The money was awarded by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations directorate, (referred to as ICE and HSI, respectively) which conducted a raid on the farm in 2007. ICE Acting Special Agent in Charge William J. Hayes presented a ceremonial check to the MSP in the amount of $250,652.09, which he said had already been paid to the department. Huron County Sheriff Kelly J. Hanson was awarded $35,807.44 for his department’s work during the investigation of Aquila Farms.
“We’re proud to be here today to share forfeited funds with our state and local partners as the result of a successful worksite enforcement investigation in this area launched in 2007 following a tip from the Michigan State Police,” Hayes said. “The investigation into Aquila Farms revealed the dairy operation was run almost exclusively with an illegal workforce. Our investigation also uncovered that the company’s leadership was unscrupulous in their business practices.
“During the service of two search warrants in 2007, with support units from the Michigan State Police and the Huron County Sheriff’s Department in Bad Axe, more than two dozen illegal aliens were arrested, all of whom have been removed to their home country. The owners were later arrested on charges of hiring and harboring illegal aliens. After being convicted on related charges, the company’s owners and the business itself was subsequently fined and ordered to make payments in lieu of forfeiture of more than $2.7 million dollars, a portion of which we’re proud to share today.”
According the the ICE website, and an investigation learned that 75 percent of the employees at Aquila Farms during the time period between 2000 and 2007 were in the country illegally. The farm’s owners, Johannes Martinus Verhaar and Anthonia Marjanne Verhaar, pleaded guilty to hiring illegal aliens on June 28, 2011. They received three years of probation and were ordered to pay $500,000 in fines. The business Aquila Farms pleaded guilty to harboring illegal aliens in June 2011 and was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to pay fines totaling $2,734,000.
The partnership of federal, state and local authorities resulted in convictions and additional revenue for public safety efforts.
“As you can see, (our cooperation with local authorities) was very good,” Hayes said. “This operation went on for quite some time, and it resulted in a couple of search warrants being executed. The paperwork was compiled and put together to identify the criminal activity that was underlying the harboring and exploitation of these documented workers. They were forced to work long hours seven days a week, paid very little (and lived in) housing conditions that maybe weren’t perfect.
“(Employing illegal immigrants) gave this farm a particular advantage; they were able to get labor cheaper than competing farms that are doing it the right way, so that’s where it hurts everyone. Everyone looks at this as a victimless crime, but there really isn’t a victimless crime.”
Most mentions of Homeland Security bring to mind border patrols and operations down south, but Hayes said this case illustrates how his agency works to protect every border of the United States.
“We (handle) anything that touches the border, whether it’s illegal aliens, drugs, money, guns, weapons of mass destruction — anything,” Hayes said. “We’re like the detective side of it. … We’re the partner agency to Customs and Border Protection. … They’ll find things and they’ll turn it over to us. We also do investigations that are independent of the border, such as the investigation today linked to worksite enforcement. … When we do find these illegal workforces we’ll take action against them and against the owners and operators of those businesses. As you can see, the fines can be pretty steep too.
“I just want to (praise) the cooperation of our state and local partners,” Hayes said. “Without them, sometimes these things don’t come off. We don’t have people up here in this area, so we’re relying on the information received from our partners up here to generate these kinds of leads and these kinds of cases. We’re glad we’re able to give something back to augment their budgets, which we know in this day and age are all declining, so it’s a benefit to them as well.”
Krugielki said the money will help fund the Caro Post’s responsibility to provide police coverage in Tuscola, Sanilac and Huron counties.
“That’s a significant amount of money, no matter the organization,” Krugielki said. “Community safety is what we’re all about. We’re a not-for-profit organization, so obviously we’re not in what we do to make money, but any time that a case like this results in money that can be shared locally and at the state level, that’s a good thing.”
Hanson said he is very appreciative his department was included in the distribution of funds for the assistance they provided in the case.
“The money can be used for most anything law-enforcement related. We will be prioritizing our needs for equipment… replacing and updating some,” he said, noting his department will receive a total of $100,000 in installment payments over the next few years.
Bill Petzold is a staff writer for the Tuscola County Advertiser. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Mary Drier contributed to this report.