Restaurant owner held in Novi house fire that killed 5

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Novi — A 55-year-old Novi businessman is in custody and he and his wife will face federal charges of “harboring undocumented immigrants for profit” stemming from a basement fire that killed five Mexican nationals.

Roger Tam, the owner of the home, hired the men, who were16-23 years old, about six months ago to work in his Kim’s Garden Chinese restaurant, authorities said Friday in a joint news conference of Novi Police and federal authorities.

As part of the work arrangement, Tam paid the men in cash and also allowed them to live in the basement of his house at 23184 Mystic Forest. The restaurant kept no records of their employment, paid no taxes on their earnings and had no documents regarding their status in this country, Tam told authorities.

Tam’s wife, Ada Lei, 48, a naturalized U.S. citizen and native of China, is also charged in the federal complaint but is hospitalized for unknown reasons and will surrender to authorities after she is discharged.

Roger Tam appeared in shackles and chains in federal court in Detroit Friday afternoon for a formal reading of the charge against him: conspiring to conceal, harbor and shield those who came to the United States unlawfully.

Federal prosecutors are seeking to keep Tam detained. U.S. Magistrate Judge Mona Mazoub set a detention hearing for 1 p.m. Wednesday. Tam will remain in federal custody until then. Tam used an interpreter to translate the proceedings in Cantonese.

The offense carries a 10-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.

“There is an enhancement ability to the offense when it results in death and we are looking into that,” said U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade at the news conference.

Enhancement of the charge can be lead to life in prison.

Kim’s Garden at 26150 Novi Road remains closed until further notice.

Tam’s attorney, Ray Cassar, described the Novi businessman as a “great and kind” man who has been portrayed much differently in media reports. He said Tam immigrated here from China in 1986, became a citizen three years later, and never left.

“He is the type to try and help people,” Cassar said. “He fed and paid these men well and let them stay in his house. This isn’t some dilapidated apartment. This is a nice home in a nice Novi neighborhood.

“It worked out well for him and it worked out well for them, too,” Cassar said of the work and living arrangement.

Tam told authorities he did not even know the names of the victims, who all died of soot and smoke inhalation. They have since been identified as Pablo Alvaro Encino, 23, from Ocosingo, Chiapas, Mexico; Leonel Alvarado Rodriguez, 18, from Lagos De Moreno, Jalisco, Mexico; Miguel Nunez Diaz, 23, from Las Choapas, Veracruz, Mexico; Brayan Alexis Medina Contreras, 16, from Pinos, Zacatecas, Mexico; and Simeon Diaz Nunez, 18, from Santa Maria Chimalapa Juchitan, Oaxaca, Mexico.

All five died in the basement, where the fire is believed to have started in a mattress, possibly by a careless smoker, police said. Evidence indicated some of the victims had tried to escape the fumes but were overcome and unable to leave the basement, Novi Public Safety Director David Molloy said.

Molloy described a situation that was a tragedy waiting to happen.

“We are still looking into a multitude of city code and safety violations,” Molloy said. “ ... I have never witnessed such blatant disregard for respect of human life.”

Among deficiencies were non-working smoke detectors — including in the basement — and which according to the brother of one of the victim’s had been deliberately disabled by Lei “due to its constant beeping” according to the federal criminal complaint. The basement was equipped with a kitchenette where the men cooked meals.

In response to the claim from a victim’s relative that Lei disabled a basement smoke detector, Cassar said: “I don’t believe that for a second. I don’t believe she would even go down in the basement.

“Tam told the men they were not allowed to smoke in the basement. It’s possible they disabled it.”

Federal agencies, including the United States Department Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Department of Homeland Security, initially became part of the probe because the five victims were not U.S. citizens or here with permission. One of the men spoke Chinese and the other four spoke Spanish, according to a criminal complaint signed by Randal T. Cummings, a special agent with Homeland Security.

In the complaint, Cummings wrote that Tam, a Novi resident and businessman who is a native of Hong Kong, told police the men came to his business at 26150 Novi Road about six months ago looking for work and he paid them in cash and allowed them to live in the basement of the Mystic Forest home. Tam lived at another address but kept a bedroom and some belongings at the home where the fire occurred.

Investigators have obtained much information about the arrangement from the brother of one of the victims who had worked for Tam and had also previously lived at the house. It is believed the man — who authorities said Friday is not charged with any crimes and is to deported for also being in the U.S. illegally — possibly steered the victims to Tam.

The man, who authorities would not identify, said the five victims worked six days a week for Tam from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., were paid $2,000 a month and were permitted to eat at the restaurant.

Tam would pick up the five men in the morning and return them to the Novi home at night. Molloy said Tam was arriving at the home to pick up the men on Sunday morning, Jan. 31, when he noticed smoke curling out of the basement.

When the 911 dispatcher asked Tam if he was able to get everyone out of the house he responded “yes.” When firefighters arrived Tam met them in the driveway along with his daughter, Jennifer Tam, who said for the first time that five men who occasionally stayed in the home might be in the basement.

Firefighters found the bodies after extinguishing the fire and attempted CPR on two of the victims. Firefighters responded within six minutes of the call, Molloy said and found one smoke detector in operation — on an upper floor of the house.

Cassar said Tam speaks “broken English” and said translation problems were likely part of the confusion when he made the 911 call.

“He wasn’t trying to hide anything, he was trying to get help,” Cassar said. “He shouted down the stairway trying to get the men to come out. And when firemen came, he told them there were people downstairs.”

Jennifer Tam told investigators the basement had bedrooms where “family members and friends” would stay. She said the last time she and her parents stayed at the home was two or three days before the fire and “due to a cockroach problem” the three moved over to another Tam-owned house on East Lake Drive.

Police executed a search warrant at Tam’s home and also visited two other addresses in the city which they described as “rental properties” owned by Tam.

Tam has not been cited for any problems with his properties and investigators found no problems or evidence of multi-occupancy at the other addresses, Molloy said.

McQuade said the deaths were tragic and also underscore concerns about circumventing immigration laws and public safety. She said while there is no evidence the men were held in the house against their will, it posed dangerous circumstances.

“The case is a sobering reminder of the dangers employers create when they harbor undocumented immigrants,” McQuade said. “In order to obtain a competitive advantage by paying lower wages and evading taxes some employers will subject undocumented workers to poor living conditions and even dangerous situations.”

Cassar said no one can ignore the issue of undocumented workers in the U.S.

“There are thousands of undocumented workers in Michigan,” he said. “But that doesn’t make them or people who hire them criminals. It’s something we need to work on in this country.”

Molloy and McQuade said the investigation is continues and anyone with information regarding this incident is asked to call (248) 347-0530.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319