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Farm supervisors take plea deal in worker’s heat death

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Posted: Thursday, March 10, 2011 7:17 am | Updated: 8:25 am, Thu Mar 10, 2011.

Two California farm supervisors charged in the heat-related death of a pregnant teen farmworker finalized a plea deal and were sentenced Wednesday to community service and probation, angering farmworker advocates who had called for jail time.

The supervisors initially were charged with involuntary manslaughter in the nation’s first criminal case involving the heat-related death of a farmworker.

California introduced the first heat regulations in the nation in 2005 to protect the state’s 450,000 seasonal workers, but advocates said the rules were routinely violated.

Authorities said Lodi-resident Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, died in 2008 because supervisors failed to provide shade as she pruned grapes for nine hours in nearly triple-digit heat in a Farmington vineyard. The teenager was two months pregnant, although her pregnancy was not discovered until she was hospitalized for heat stoke.

Jimenez died at Lodi Memorial Hospital May 16, 2008, two days after being hospitalized.

Under the plea deal approved by Superior Court Judge Michael Garrigan, defendant Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, the owner of now-defunct Merced Farm Labor, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of failing to provide shade. She was given 40 hours of community service and will serve three years of probation and pay a $370 fine.

Her brother, Elias Armenta, who was the company’s safety director, pleaded guilty to a felony count of failing to follow safety regulations that resulted in death. He was sentenced to 480 hours of community service, five years of probation and a $1,000 fine.

The plea deals also banned both from ever again working in farm labor contracting. Armenta’s felony could also be reduced to a misdemeanor upon completion of his community service hours.

The sentences angered Maria Isabel’s family and dozens of supporters who had called for stricter punishment.

“Justice failed us,” said Jose Luis Vasquez Jimenez, her brother, who joined a dozen supporters who stood silently outside the courtroom holding enlarged photographs of Maria Isabel.

“We hoped for a stronger sentence, so the farm employers could learn to respect farmworkers,” he said. “My sister is in my heart and I feel sad that nothing was done to punish those who led to her death.”

Woodbridge-based defense attorney Randy Thomas said it was time Colunga and Armenta put the case behind them.

“The defendants are sad about this case, but their involvement was very peripheral, in my opinion, so this was a sound resolution,” Thomas said.

After the sentencing, farmworker advocates and family members drove to Sacramento, where they held a vigil and demanded Gov. Jerry Brown meet with farmworkers on Cesar Chavez Day, March 31.

“It’s really apparent that the entire system has failed Maria Isabel and the other farmworkers who died in the field,” said Merlyn Calderon, vice president of United Farm Workers of America. “This is an unjust sentence for the negligence demonstrated.”

Advocates say the death has become a symbol of a system gone wrong. In 2008, an investigation by The Associated Press found the understaffed California Division of Occupational Safety and Health failed to consistently hold employers accountable for workers’ deaths.

Since 2005, when heat regulations were first implemented, 13 farmworkers have died of heat stroke.

County Deputy District Attorney Lester Fleming, who prosecuted the case involving Maria Isabel, said he agreed to the plea bargain because trying the case would likely have yielded the same result.

News-Sentinel reporter Fernando Gallo contributed to this report.

Merced Farm Labor had previous worker safety citations, and surrendered its license after the death of Maria Isabel. The agricultural firm also was hit by a record $262,700 fine by Cal-OSHA over the working conditions.

“For them, Maria Isabel was only another farm laborer whom they could replace easily,” Doroteo Jimenez, the uncle of the girl, said in Spanish through an interpreter in court before the sentencing. “For us, the loss was eternal.”

Her fiancé Florentino Bautista worked alongside Maria Isabel and testified at a previous hearing that no one called 911 when the teen collapsed, and a foreman recommended that she rest in a hot van and be revived with a wet towel and rubbing alcohol.

Inspectors later found that Merced Farm Labor failed to provide water, shade and safety training.

Since the teen’s death, Cal-OSHA has ramped up enforcement of heat regulations and offered training to farm employers and contractors, said Len Welsh, the agency’s chief. There were three heat-related fatalities in 2008, including Maria Isabel, none in 2009 and one in 2010. The agency also shut down about 20 agricultural employers.

County Deputy District Attorney Lester Fleming, who prosecuted the case involving Maria Isabel, said he agreed to the plea bargain because trying the case would likely have yielded the same result.

It was hard to find witnesses to testify, he said, because most farmworkers are not English speakers and many are in the country illegally.

Maria Isabel — or Mari, as the family called her — grew up in the town of San Sebastian Nopalera in Oaxaca, population 5,000. When she was 8, her father was killed in a land dispute, plunging the family into poverty.

As the eldest daughter, Maria Isabel helped take care of younger siblings. She made and sold tamales and other food, her family said, and she also toiled in the fields, earning about 50 pesos or $4 a day.

The teen aspired to be a hair stylist. After graduating from junior high school, she enrolled in a trade school but couldn’t afford the fees, so she dropped out.

She decided to follow her fiancé and brother to Central California.

“She was desperate and she realized that on the other side, in the United States, she could improve her life,” her brother Roberto Valentin said in a phone interview from Oaxaca.

Over her family’s protests, Maria Isabel contacted a smuggler to make the trip.

Working in almond orchards, her fiancé saved enough for a silver engagement ring. But she died before they were married.

She was buried in her hometown cemetery in a wedding dress.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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