LINCOLN — Fifteen of the people officials linked to an alleged scheme that hired undocumented immigrants appeared in court Thursday afternoon.
John Charles Good, Erin Beringer, Christopher Thurlow and John Glidden were the first of more than a dozen alleged co-conspirators to appear in federal court.
Good pleaded not guilty to harboring illegal aliens and money laundering. Beringer, Thurlow and Glidden pleaded not guilty to conspiring to harbor illegal aliens.
Federal agents served search warrants Wednesday in and around the Nebraska towns of O’Neill, Ainsworth, Bartlett, Royal and Stromsburg and also in Las Vegas and Minnesota. In addition to the 17 people connected to an alleged conspiracy to exploit illegal labor, officials arrested 133 workers suspected of being in the country illegally.
Three businesses also are listed in a federal indictment.
Officials described the operation as one of the largest investigations in Homeland Security Investigations’ 15-year history.
Good faces a maximum of 30 years in prison if convicted on both counts. The others face a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted.
Judge Cheryl Zwart allowed all four to be released, but they must report to pretrial services, stay in Nebraska unless they have permission to leave and surrender their passports. They are allowed to speak to each other and other defendants only for work reasons, she ruled.
Prosecutors will have 30 days to disclose all evidence to defense attorneys, who then have another 30 days to look over the information before the next hearing Oct. 10.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lesley Woods classified the case as complex because of the amount of evidence involved. She said a wiretap was used to record phone calls and added that investigators looked through thousands of pages of financial documents.
Officials said the accused ringleaders, Juan “Pablo” Delgado, Magdalena Castro Benitez and Antonio De Jesus Castro, created two companies that provided undocumented employees to businesses in Nebraska, Minnesota and Nevada. One official with Immigration and Customs Enforcement equated the conspiracy to “slave labor,” saying many workers had to pay fees to get jobs.
Delgado and Castro provided different names and Social Security numbers for the undocumented workers, knowing that they could not work legally in the United States, according to the federal indictment. They also transported the illegal workers and provided housing in order to hide the operation from ICE officials, the documents allege.
Others listed in the indictment allegedly agreed to “warn each other about possible enforcement actions” of ICE. According to court documents, John Good told Delgado and Benitez on June 21 about possible ICE presence and suggested they close their La Herradura restaurant to avoid detection.
On the money-laundering charge, court documents allege that Delgado would withhold money from the workers’ paychecks, claiming it was for federal taxes but then kept the money for himself. More than $8 million in transactions were conducted by Delgado’s company accounts at Great Western Bank.
Beringer’s attorney told the judge that Beringer and Thurlow were being taken by a co-worker back to O’Neill, and asked Zwart if that was allowed.
As long as they don’t talk about the case, Zwart said.
“If you do talk about this, whatever you say, somebody else can use against you later,” she said. “So everybody keep your mouth shut.”
Dave Domina, who is representing Good, said after the hearing that Good is 73 years old and a lifelong, well-regarded resident of Holt County. Domina said they will fight the charges at trial.
“We don’t believe a crime was committed,” Domina said. “He did whatever he did to be a decent person, for no financial gain or profit.”
Later, Juan Sanchez Delgado, Magdalena Castro Benitez and Alma Hernandez Moreno pleaded not guilty to money laundering and harboring illegal aliens. Sunni Sarahi Sanchez Delgado pleaded not guilty to harboring illegal aliens.
They were not released and will have a detention hearing Tuesday.
Ross Pesek, an attorney representing Delgado and Benitez’s business, JP and Sons LLC, said in a statement that the case is “political prosecution.”