Fund set up for families of Novi basement fire victims

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Novi — A Novi couple facing federal charges for harboring men in the country illegally have set up a trust fund for the families of the victims who died in a basement fire.

Roger Tam, 55, and his wife, Ada Lei, 48, are charged in federal court for one count of conspiracy and five counts of “harboring undocumented immigrants for profit.” Each face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted of crimes. The couple are both naturalized U.S. citizens.

“This (fund) is an example of how bad he feels,” attorney Ray Cassar said. “He wants to help their families.”

Cassar said charitable donations can be taken to any Chase Bank location in Metro Detroit and checks should be made payable to “The Victims of the Novi Fire Trust.” As of Thursday, there was about $10,000 in the fund.

All of the money will be sent back to Mexico to the victims’s families “to be used in whichever capacity they see fit or as the need arises” according to Cassar.

The money will be sent through the Mexican Consulate in Detroit, he said.

Those who died in the fire were Pablo Alvaro Encino and Miguel Nunez Diaz, both 23; Leonel Alvarado Rodriguez and Simeon Diaz Nunez, both 18, and Brayan Alexis Medina Contreras, 16.

Tam, who owns Kim’s Garden Chinese restaurant, told investigators the men approached him for work about six months ago. Tam said under an agreement the five Mexican nationals were paid in cash, allowed to take meals at the restaurant and live in the basement of a house on Mystic Forest in Novi also owned by Tam.

Tam discovered the fire when he went to drive the men to work Jan. 31. He initially told a dispatcher that 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 stems from the “broken English” Tam speaks.

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 had been intentionally disabled, accorded to Novi fire investigators.

Federal investigators said Tam had no records of their employment, took no taxes from their pay and had no documents of their status in the U.S.

“Mr. Tam and his wife have not been accurately portrayed in media reports,” said Cassar, who described the Novi businessman as a “great and kind” man who treated the men like family.

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