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Novi couple faces federal charges in fire that killed 5

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Novi couple was indicted on additional federal charges Friday for harboring five illegal aliens who died in a fire in a house the husband and wife owned.

The victims — five Mexican national men between the ages of 16 and 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, owner Roger Tam has told investigators.

Tam, 55, and his wife, Ada Mei Lei, 48, were formally charged in a multicount indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Detroit, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade announced in a press release. Each faces five counts of harboring undocumented immigrants for the purpose of commercial advantage and private financial gain and one count of conspiracy to harbor undocumented immigrants for the purpose of commercial advantage and private financial gain.

The offenses — felonies which each carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine — stem from a joint investigation by Novi Police, and Immigration Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, Border Patrol and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.

“There is a lot more to come out in this case in court,” said attorney Raymond Cassar, who represents Tam. “They (men) approached Mr. Tam for work and he treated them all like family. He really cared about them and is heartbroken by what happened. He is currently setting up a trust fund for their families — not for sympathy for him but because he cared about them.

“We are still seeking discovery, including autopsies, but believe there is still much to be learned about the circumstances surrounding this tragic fire.”

On Feb. 12, Tam was arraigned in federal court on one count of conspiring to conceal, harbor and shield those who came to the United States unlawfully.

The victims, all of whom died of soot and smoke inhalation, 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. The fire is believed to have been started by a careless smoker.

Department of Homeland Security databases revealed that all five were in the United States illegally and had entered the country in the past six months.

Tam is believed to have hired the five men to work at his Kim’s Garden restaurant on 26150 Novi Road. The men were also driven to and from the restaurant to Tam’s house, as a condition of their employment, investigators said. Tam told a Novi detective at the fire scene that the deceased individuals were employees at Kim’s Garden whom he paid in cash — $2,000 a month each — and fed them meals at the restaurant where they worked from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Tam, who immigrated here from China in 1989, also allowed them to live in the home’s basement, where a smoke detector had allegedly been disabled by Lei because the device kept going off. Tam and Lei lived at another residence they own in Novi.

“The indictment is no surprise and we have been expecting it,” said attorney Art Weiss, who represents Lei.

Weiss said he vigorously denies and will challenge that Lei ever disabled a smoke detector.

“This is a tragic situation and very unfortunate,” he said.

In a news conference earlier this month, McQuade said because deaths resulted from the illegal conduct, the couple, if ultimately convicted, could potentially face enhancement penalties of up to life in prison.

Cassar believes facts will provide a much different view of responsibility.

“We don’t know who disabled the smoke detector or why,” he said. “I know my client treated these men as family — he took them to the Cheesecake Factory on Christmas Eve to celebrate.

“This is one immigrant trying to help out other immigrants. We can close our eyes but there are thousands and thousands of undocumented workers in this country.”

Cassar suspects the actions of one or more of the men may have accidentally led to their death in the basement.

“I have been in the basement and there were empty beer bottles all over the place — I don’t know who consumed the beer but we’re eager to get autopsy (toxicology) results on the men,” Cassar said. “We know they had been instructed not to smoke in the basement and neighbors had frequently seen them smoking outside and in the garage.”

Tam and Lei are free on bond pending a 1 p.m. March 4 preliminary examination on the charges before U.S. District Judge Marianne O. Battani, their attorneys said.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319