The owner and safety coordinator of a farm labor contractor were arraigned Tuesday on involuntary manslaughter charges in connection with a 17-year-old Lodi girl's heat stroke death.
Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, owner of now-defunct Merced Farm Labor, spoke little during the short Stockton court appearance. She stood beside her brother, Elias Armenta, as their attorneys discussed future court dates.
A third defendant, foreman Raul Martinez, failed to appear in court and a prosecutor said he will seek an arrest warrant. Martinez is believed to be living in Mexico.
All are charged in the May 16, 2008, death of Maria Vasquez Jimenez, who had collapsed two days earlier in a Farmington vineyard when temperatures reached about 95 degrees that day. The California Department of Industrial Relations has since shuttered Merced Farm Labor and fined them more than $262,000 for failing to follow heat safety laws.
"It was a very sad event, there is no question about it," defense attorney Randy Thomas said after the arraignment. "But who's to blame? That's the question."
He did not address specific allegations, as prosecutors still need to give him several thousand pages of evidence. Thomas did say his clients tried to run a lawful business.
Deputy District Attorney Lester Fleming, who filed the charges, said heat safety training laws are in place for a reason. In 2005, California passed extensive heat illness prevention laws that require laborers have access to water and shade and supervisors to be trained to recognize and treat heat illness.
"We felt the death of the young woman was wrong," Fleming said. "All citizens need to follow the law."
Colunga and Armenta did not enter pleas Tuesday, and they will return to court July 2. They remain out of custody on their promise to appear in court, and to not leave the state without court permission.
Jimenez's family members were not present in court, but longtime local immigrant rights activist Luis Magana sat in the audience.
Magana helped raise money to send Jimenez's body back to Mexico for burial, and he has remained in contact with her family, some of whom still live in San Joaquin County.
Rather than celebrating Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates a Mexican victory over French forces and is cause for celebrations in Mexico and states including California, Magana expressed frustration Tuesday.
He wasn't happy that one of the defendants didn't show up in court, and he would also like to see farm owners pay more attention to what is really happening on their own land.
"Where are the faces of the growers, the farmers? I don't see a lot of responsibility," he said.
In addition to the criminal charges, prosecutors have also filed civil charges against the defendants, as well as West Coast Grape Farming, which owned the vineyard where Jimenez was working. The civil charges could result in fines of at least $500,000, up to $5.5 million.
Jimenez's family has also filed a wrongful death lawsuit.
Neither Colunga nor Armenta, who are brother and sister, commented after court, on their attorney's advice. Thomas, who is working with attorney David Wellenbrock, noted that both siblings traveled from Atwater for the court appearance and have met with him regularly.
Armenta has been unable to find work because of the demise of the business and subsequent publicity, Thomas said. Colunga, who worked as a nurse before she took over ownership of the farm labor company, continues to work as a nurse.