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Relatives of farmworker who died of heat stroke seek jail for her employers

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Posted: Tuesday, March 8, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 8:25 am, Thu Mar 10, 2011.

The relatives of a pregnant teen who died from heat stroke while working in a California vineyard in 2008 are joining with the United Farm Workers of America to seek jail for her employers.

The group began a two-day vigil Monday at a Stockton courthouse. Members want San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Michael Garrigan to reject a plea deal for two defendants originally charged with involuntary manslaughter in the teen’s death. Under the plea agreement, both defendants would plead guilty to lesser, workplace-related charges.

Authorities say 17-year-old undocumented immigrant Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez collapsed after she was denied access to shade as she worked in near-triple-digit heat May 14, 2008. Jimenez was not taken to the hospital until several hours later, where it was determined she had a miscarriage. Jimenez died two days later, and the county coroner determined the cause of death to be heat stroke.

San Joaquin County District Attorney Lester Fleming said the deal is expected to be finalized Tuesday. The two defendants are Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, the owner of now-defunct Merced Farm Labor, and her brother Elias Armenta, the company’s safety director.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, Armenta would plead guilty to a felony and serve 480 hours of community service. Colunga would plead guilty to a misdemeanor and receive 40 hours of community service.

Woodbridge-based attorney Randy Thomas represented both defendants, and said Armenta’s felony could be reduced to a misdemeanor upon completion of his community service hours. The plea deal was agreed upon in January after several months of discussion and court proceedings.

The state fined Merced Farm Labor more than $262,000 before ultimately shutting the company down in June 2008.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at fernando@lodinews.com.

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