Detroit — An Oakland County couple charged in connection with a January house fire that killed five Mexican nationals are working toward a plea agreement in the case, their attorneys said Monday.
Roger Tam, 55, and Ada Mei Lei, 48, of Novi appeared in federal court before U.S. District Judge Marianne O. Battani for a status conference in the case. They are charged with five felony counts of harboring illegal aliens after the men died while living in the basement of a Novi home the couple owned.
The offenses, which each carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, stem from a joint probe by Novi police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, Border Patrol and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.
The victims, five Mexican nationals ages 16-23, were hired to work at the couple’s Kim’s Garden Chinese restaurant. They were allowed to live in the basement of the Novi house on Mystic Forest as part of an employment agreement, Tam told investigators.
Autopsies showed all died from soot and smoke inhalation from a fire that is believed to have been caused by a careless smoker. A smoke detector in the basement was intentionally disabled, Novi fire investigators said.
On Monday, attorneys Raymond Cassar and Arthur Weiss asked Battani for a 90-day adjournment to resolve several issues.
They include: five wrongful-death insurance claims that need to be resolved in Probate Court, a Department of Labor inquiry, demands of cash from the Mexican consulate office and calls from an attorney’s office in Texas who says he represents the victims in the case.
“The matter is extremely complex. The defendant is asking for an adjournment. There are a number of issues that require resolution to present a Rule 11 (plea) agreement. We aren’t there yet,” Weiss told Battani.
Battani approved the adjournment request and ordered the couple to return to court on Nov. 29 for another status conference.
Federal prosecutors allege a smoke detector in the basement had allegedly been disabled by Lei because the device kept going off. Tam and Lei lived at another residence.
Weiss and Cassar said the deaths have been ruled accidental but they remain concerned the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office is still considering charges in the case.
“There are still questions as to whether Oakland County will do anything,” Weiss said.
Oakland County chief deputy prosecutor Paul Walton said Novi police have not presented his office with any requests to charge the couple in state court. Walton said it was determined by investigators that federal charges were the most appropriate in the case.
Tam told investigators the men were paid in cash, allowed to take meals at the restaurant and live in the basement of a house on Mystic Forest in Novi.
Tam discovered the fire when he went to drive the men to work Jan. 31. He initially told a dispatcher all the occupants had made it out of the house, but when firefighters arrived, he said there were men believed to be in the basement. Cassar said the confusion stemmed from the “broken English” Tam speaks.
The victims were identified as Pablo Alvaro Encino and Miguel Nunez Diaz, both 23; Leonel Alvarado Rodriguez and Simeon Diaz Nunez, both 18; and Brayan Alexis Medina Contreras, 16.
Department of Homeland Security databases revealed all five were in the United States illegally and had entered the country within six months of the fire.