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Restaurant closes a year after 5 workers die in fire

Staff and wire reports

Novi — The owners of a Chinese restaurant have closed the business, a year after five immigrants who were employees died in a house fire.

Kim’s Garden didn’t recover after the tragedy. Roger Tam’s attorney, Ray Cassar, said the Novi restaurant closed after serving free meals to anyone who wanted one Saturday.

An Oakland County couple charged with harboring five Mexican nationals who died in a house fire pleaded guilty in the case but are not responsible for their deaths, their attorneys said. Tam and Ada Mei Lei of Novi, who appeared in federal court Feb. 1, also pleaded guilty to a sixth count of conspiring to harbor people in the country illegally.

The victims, five Mexican men between the ages of 16 and 23, were hired to work at the couple’s restaurant.

Pablo Alvaro Encino and Miguel Nunez Diaz, both 23; Leonel Alvarado Rodriguez and Simeon Diaz Nunez, both 18; and Brayan Alexis Medina Contreras, 16, died Jan. 31, 2016, of smoke and soot inhalation in the basement fire at a home owned by Tam. The five had entered the country in the six months before the fire, authorities said.

The men were 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 he paid the employees 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.

The fire has been linked to careless smoking. A smoke detector had allegedly been disabled. Tam and Lei lived at another residence they own in Novi.

The deaths were ruled accidental by investigators.

Tam and Lei could face long prison sentences if a judge decides they are responsible for the five people not escaping the basement, attorneys Cassar and Arthur Weiss said.

They did not enter into a plea agreement with the government because the parties disagreed on who was responsible for the deaths.

“They pleaded guilty for what they did. They did not cause the deaths,” Cassar said earlier this month.

Sentencing is set for June 13 before U.S. District Judge Marianne O. Battani. The offenses each carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.