June 6, 2005


East Palatka labor camp raided on EPA violations

By Robert Morris

EAST PALATKA A migrant worker labor camp was raided Friday evening as part of an investigation into illegal dumping of raw sewage into Cow Creek, a tributary of the St. Johns River.

The Putnam County Sheriff's Office coordinated the raid at Evans Labor Camp, which brought federal agents from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor to East Palatka. The investigation continued at press time, but three people were arrested on federal indictments, 78 farm workers were interviewed and several more were arrested on unrelated warrants.

"They've found what clearly looks like EPA violations, discharging raw sewage into the environment," said PCSO Capt. Gary Bowling.

Labor officials simultaneously investigated the possibility of "indentured servitude" at the camp, what one agent during the operation briefing referred to as "modern-day slavery." Homeless men and women are recruited through offers of room and board including alcohol, tobacco and drugs which they buy on credit and never make enough in the field to pay off, the investigative summary states.

"A lot of times, they get them indebted even before they get back to the camp," said federal Special Agent Rebecca Hall.

The federal agents refused to discuss the status of their investigations at the scene. Whether the camp will stay open is "questionable," said Sheriff Dean Kelly, depending on the results of Friday's investigation.

The Stewart Road labor camp is owned by Ronald Evans Sr., one of four suspects sought in the investigation. Evans was not present at the camp Friday, but EPA officials spoke to him by cell phone, alerting him to their presence and the warrant for his arrest. Evans told them he was in Miami, officials said.

The raid began shortly after 4 p.m. when a red converted school bus bearing the name "Evan's Harvesting" carrying the workers left the fields near Hastings to return to the camp. As soon as the bus arrived, sheriff's office SWAT Team members entered the compound and secured its eight buildings and all the workers.

While correctional officers searched each worker for possible weapons or illegal items, agents from the EPA and Florida Department of Environmental Protection began searching for evidence of pollution. Several agents checked each building for plumbing, while others located a drainage pipe over Cow Creek and took samples of the fluid coming out of it.

After each of the 78 workers was searched, he or she was led to an interviewer who asked questions about labor practices and living conditions at the camp, as well as about each worker's knowledge of the sewer system.

While only a handful seemed to have personal knowledge of the sewer system, many told similar stories about coming to work at the Evans Camp. Most were living at homeless shelters in Jacksonville or Miami, even as far away as New Orleans, they said, when they heard about a bus that would bring them to the fields.

The workers said they are paid in cash in a small envelope every Saturday based on how much they worked, citing amounts such as $97 or $136 for last week. Very few seemed to know how their lodgings are paid for, and only a few described deductions from their weekly pay.

"Nothing comes out of my check," said one man.

"There's some taken out for extra food, because we don't have money during the week," said a tall, thin woman wearing a grey tank top and shorts.

In a small central shed, investigators found what appeared to be several cartons of untaxed cigarettes and a cooler full of beer, as well as approximately 100 rocks of suspected crack cocaine. Detective Lt. John Merchant described the shed as a "shop" where the rocks were sold for $20 each.

With approximately 40 of the 78 farmworkers already interviewed, six people were found to be previously wanted on arrest warrants on various charges, including one man who was wanted for escape from custody out of Harrisburg, Pa. Most of the others arrested were for warrants on misdemeanor charges, Merchant said.

After the interviews, the other farmworkers were free to stay or leave as they pleased. Federal civil rights attorneys waited outside the camp to talk to the workers, offering them safe passage from the camp and help finding other employment. Around 20 left with the attorneys, but most of the workers appeared to stay, congregating near the largest building, smoking cigarettes and watching the others get interviewed.

A dirt road of fresh red clay runs through the center of the compound, which is surrounded on most sides by a chain-link, barbed-wire fence. Low-slung concrete buildings painted yellow with red roofs, doors and bars on the windows sit on both sides of the road.

Some workers share a room, but most have their own, a dark 150 square feet that fits a bed, sometimes a chair and a small closet. Clothes lay around most rooms. Several had fans blowing and TVs running while their occupants waited for interviews outside.

Very little trash lay on the ground, but flies buzzed around everything. To the rear of the compound sat a hog pit. Across the entire camp hung a foul smell of ferment and decay