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Witness says his supervisor told him to lie

He claims he was encouraged to lie to hospital in case of farmworker death

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Posted: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 8:37 am, Tue Mar 8, 2011.

The boyfriend and co-worker of a 17-year-old Lodi farmworker who died after collapsing in a Farmington vineyard in 2008 testified Monday that his supervisor encouraged him to lie to hospital staff when he brought the woman to Lodi Memorial Hospital.

Undocumented immigrant Maria Isabel Jimenez Vasquez collapsed in 90-plus degree temperatures while working May 14, 2008, but her boyfriend, Florentino Bautista, testified that supervisor Raul Martinez advised him to say she had collapsed while exercising instead.

Martinez was one of three defendants named when the county Deputy District Attorney Lester Fleming brought manslaughter charges last year in connection with Vasquez' death.

The other two defendants are Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, who owned Merced Farm Labor, the company that employed Vasquez and Bautista, and her brother, Elias Armenta, who served as the company's safety director.

Martinez fled when the charges were filed and has yet to be located, but Colunga and Armenta are being defended in court by Woodbridge attorney Randy Thomas.

Thomas had previously said Bautista bore some responsibility for the situation for failing to inform Merced Farm Labor that Vasquez was pregnant, but Bautista testified that he had no idea she was pregnant until doctors informed him after her collapse. Bautista, who is an undocumented immigrant, also said Martinez told him Vasquez had just fainted when she collapsed in the Farmington Vineyard, and that Bautista should try to revive her with rubbing alcohol. After she did not awaken for few hours, Bautista said a co-worker suggested they take Vasquez to a hospital.

He testified that Martinez then told him by phone not to reveal the true cause of Vasquez' collapse, and said Bautista or Vasquez may be deported if they were honest with hospital staff.

Bautista admitted Monday that both he and Vasquez owned falsified identification papers, and both lied about their ages on their applications for employment with Merced Farm Labor.

Bautista also testified that workers were discouraged from getting water by Martinez, who would appear to get annoyed when workers did so.

From the beginning Thomas has conceded that his clients should receive some punishment related to work conditions, but said manslaughter charges are excessive. Fleming has defended the decision to pursue a manslaughter trial, but said what's most important to the district attorney's office is that at least one of the defendants is found guilty of a felony.

The court had been waiting for Bautista to testify since the preliminary hearing began Oct. 25, but he repeatedly failed to show. A bench warrant was ultimately issued to compel Bautista to testify, and he voluntarily appeared Monday. Presiding county Superior Court Judge Michael Garrigan agreed to rescind the warrant as a result.

The hearing will conclude Dec. 16, either with a settlement between the district attorney's office and the defendants or a ruling by Garrigan. Fleming said the two sides will meet to discuss a possible plea agreement before the next court date, but said he will only accept a deal in which at least one defendant pleads guilty to a felony. If an agreement is not reached, Garrigan will decide if a manslaughter trial is needed.

Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at fernando@lodinews. com.

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