Scamming immigrants for fun and profit

by Phyllis Zagano

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Updated Oct 11, 5:05 p.m. CT: According to the Okeechobee County Office of the State Attorney, on Monday, Jeff Davis, assistant state attorney, reviewed the cases on the Okeechobee berry pickers and dismissed all of them.

Getting arrested can wreck your whole day. And night, if you are in Okeechobee, Fla.

That's what happened to eleven Latinos who thought they had purchased picking rights to a fenced-in field of saw palmetto berries. The legalities are, well, the legalities. The back story, however, is rather interesting.

On two successive September days, groups of poor people from Immokalee, Fla., purchased picking rights from two men who said they represented the Triple Diamond, an 8,000-acre spread currently listed for sale at $26.5 million. The ranch's "agents" took at least $400 cash and left the people with written authorization, according to one of the eleven. The folks worked for most of one very hot Saturday, gathering, as it turned out, a lot of berries.

Just as they were finished picking, at about 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 10, someone called Florida Wildlife Control, who called the Okeechobee sheriff, who called the ranch manager, and that by 2:45 p.m. the eleven were in custody, accused of trespassing. It's all in the sheriff's report.

Did I mention that the ranch belongs to Elaine Johnson Wold, a Boca Raton socialite and donor to many, many worthy causes?

Anyway, despite the fact that the ranch manager believed their story, the jig was up. The ranch manager kept the berries, which he told me he later sold for $4,400. The Immokalee eleven were carted off to jail, booked and held overnight, until they could post $500 bond.

Did I mention most of the eleven had nothing to eat overnight? They had missed the jailhouse dinner, and were not fed at all before they left early in the morning. One was diabetic. She asked to call her children and a jailer made a remark about her calling Mexico. Her kids were in Immokalee. She told a local nun she never did get to make that call.

Unfortunately, scamming immigrants is as old as the republic. Does it matter that the ranch manager sold off the "evidence"? Increased disdain for immigrants comes not from who they are or what they do, but rather from the angry words in current national debate.

So, what's the deal here? Who is right? Who is wrong?

Obviously, the Immokalee eleven were trespassing and stealing, except they did not know that. They thought they had a legal contract with the ranch to pick berries that day.

Obviously, the ranch manager needs to protect his owner's property, from trespass, stealing, and especially from liability. (Apparently everybody in Okeechobee is worried about snake bites.)

However, even more obviously, someone scammed the Immokalee eleven. The eleven gave descriptions of the scam artists to the sheriff. They even gave the sheriff and the ranch manager the scammer's cell phone number and a description of their car.

So far, the detective work of the Okeechobee sheriff's office amounts to contacting the scammer. Surprise! He said he did not know anything about it.

What to do? Well, from afar it sounds like some folks in Okeechobee, Fla., are not interested when Latinos -- especially Latinos who live two hours away -- get scammed. The eleven worked and lost their profits to a Boca Raton socialite. To be fair, she probably knows nothing about the fact that her ranch manager profited on the backs of these poor folks. But the ranch manager has not dropped the charges and the wheels of justice, especially in Florida, turn very, very slowly.

And what about the sheriff keeping folks from afternoon until the next day's morning without giving most of them a meal? Do I hear someone in the back row shouting "cruel and unusual"?

One can only hope the state's attorney can muddle through this mess. For sure, the sheriff's office does not seem that interested. They may catch the real crooks someday, but only if a lot of people keep asking a lot of questions.

Okeechobee, Fla., population 5,621, calls itself the "Speckled Perch Capital of the World." It's not. It's the "Rip Off Capital of the World."

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. She will speak Oct. 19, 2016, at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. Her books include Women Deacons: Past, Present, FutureWomen Deacons? Essays with Answers and In the Image of Christ: Essays on Being Catholic and Female.]

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