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Two charged in wrongful death of Lodi farmworker agree to plea deal

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Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2011 11:49 am | Updated: 8:25 am, Thu Mar 10, 2011.

The two defendants charged in the wrongful death of a Lodi farmworker who died of heat exposure in 2008 agreed to a tentative plea deal Thursday in which both will avoid jail time.

Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, who owned the labor contractor that 17-year-old victim Maria Isabel Jimenez Vasquez worked for, will plead guilty to a misdemeanor for failing to provide shade to workers in the heat, according to county Deputy District Attorney Lester Fleming. Elias Armenta, Colunga's brother who served as her safety director at Merced Farm Labor, will plead guilty to a felony for a violation of safety standards that led to the death of an employee, Fleming said.

Colunga will serve 40 hours of community service and pay a $370 fine, while Armenta will serve 480 hours and pay a $1,000 fine, Fleming said. Both will also receive probation.

"It's about as good as we were going to get," Fleming said. "It's unlikely that we'd have gotten any significant jail time (with a trial) because there wasn't any malice."

Woodbridge attorney Randy Thomas, who represented both defendants, called the deal "outstanding."

"The DA's office has been reasonable in reaching a resolution that's fair to all parties," he said. "My clients can live with the results, and they are remorseful that somebody lost their life."

Thomas also said Armenta could petition to have his felony reduced to a misdemeanor upon completion of probation.

Fleming said the deal was unprecedented, because no one has ever received a felony conviction for a heat-related safety death.

"I don't even know if there are any misdemeanor (convictions)," he said. "We're very happy to show that you can get a felony conclusion."

Thomas said new heat-safety regulations have been enforced as a direct result of the Vasquez case.

"Back then (in 2008), growers and vineyard owners and labor contractors weren't putting up shade," Thomas said. "It's only as a result of this case that it got enforced."

The heat safety rules enacted on an emergency basis in 2005 were intended to protect the hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers who pick crops in the height of summer. California workplace safety officials voted last year to modify the rules in an attempt to strengthen and clarify protections for people who work outside.

Vasquez, who was two months pregnant, collapsed while working in 90-plus degree heat in a Farmington vineyard on May 14, 2008. She was eventually sent to Lodi Memorial Hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered a miscarriage. Vasquez died at the hospital two days later. The San Joaquin County Coroner's Office determined the cause of death was heat stroke.

Merced Farm Labor was fined more than $262,000 after the incident, and was shut down by the state in June 2008. Colunga, Armenta and a Merced Farm Labor supervisor, Raul Martinez, were all charged with involuntary manslaughter by the San Joaquin County District Attorney's office in May 2009. Martinez fled the charges, and has not been seen since.

The plea deal will not be finalized until after a probation report is submitted, Fleming said.

Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at fernando@lodinews.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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