Detroit — An Oakland County couple charged with harboring five Mexican nationals who died in a house fire will plead guilty in the case when they return to court in February.
Roger Tam, 55, and Ada Mei Lei, 48, of Novi are charged with five felony counts of harboring people living here illegally in U.S. District Court.
The victims, 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 January 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.
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 deaths were ruled accidental by investigators.
The couple made a brief court appearance on Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Marianne O. Battani will sentence the couple on Feb. 1.
Attorneys Raymond Cassar and Arthur Weiss, who represent Tam and Lei, said on Tuesday the couple want to accept responsibility for the incident.
Cassar and Weiss said they continue to assist the couple with resolving five wrongful-death insurance claims, 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.
“These are good people and we’re fighting and doing everything we can for them to make this right and part of that is them accepting responsibility,” Cassar said.
Weiss said sentencing guidelines in federal court call for a higher prison sentence when harboring people living in the U.S. illegally results in a death.
“Our clients’ conduct did not cause the defendants to die. The deaths were accidental, and we accept that finding. It should not enhance the guidelines, but it does,” Weiss said.
Battani will decide how much prison time, if any, Tam or Lei will get, Cassar said, but the guidelines are the difference between either defendants getting probation or likely up to five years in prison. Neither has a criminal record.
“There is a huge risk here, but we are not going to trial,” Cassar said.
In their compliant, 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.
Tam told investigators the men were paid in cash, allowed to take meals at the restaurant and live in the basement of the Novi house.
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.