Alameda County sheriff launches human trafficking investigation after 2 fruit vendors arrested

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The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation Thursday into the cases of two fruit vendors, KTVU has learned, both of whom were arrested on the same day this month in San Lorenzo and who were found wearing ICE ankle monitors.

Sgt. Ray Kelly said his office now believes both fruit vendors may be victims of a human trafficking ring, first brought to light because of witnesses who captured images of the arrests and pieced together by KTVU. The case of the second fruit vendor, a woman, was not widely publicized until Thursday.

Kelly said it’s rare for deputies to spot and arrest fruit vendors, especially on the same day and so close together.  Both were arrested on May 9, two miles away from each other in San Lorenzo. Both vendors refused to move along when asked by deputies, prompting their arrests for selling fruit without permits, Kelly said. The vendors’ refusal to pack up the fruit and leave is now making authorities question whether they are being exploited by some type of boss who is demanding payment from them, Kelly said. If that’s true, the vendors will not be treated as criminals, but as victims who stand to receive assistance, he said.

“After talking to the DA, we wonder if these two vendors were employed by the same person, like a coyote smuggler, who dropped them off and told them they can’t leave until they sell their fruit and pay them back,” Kelly told KTVU.

What also is odd about  both of these vendors, Kelly said, is that both the male and female fruit vendors were wearing ankle monitors as part if ICE’s “Intensive Supervision Appearance Program.”  Kelly said in all his years in law enforcement he has never heard of that program. When his deputies called ICE to find out why the vendors were wearing the bracelets, the agents were “less than forthcoming,” he said. In the case of the male fruit vendor, the public defender said that he was seeking asylum and being monitored by ICE through his court proceedings. The  ISAP program has been around since at least 2005, and is a way for undocumented immigrants to be released on their own recognizance and monitored by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Kelly said he has no evidence at this point to support his theory, but investigators are now curious about the vendors’ noncompliance with deputies’ commands to move their fruit stands.

“It was like they didn’t want to leave their fruit behind, like they’d get in trouble,” Kelly said.. Also, in both cases, deputies were called out about the vendors because of citizen complaints, Kelly said.

In the last five years, Kelly said the county has seen 47 fruit vendor cases, and none have been like these last two, Kelly said.

In the first, more high-profile fruit vendor case, Pedro Aguillar, was arrested in the 1000 block of Delano Street  after someone called to complain about him selling strawberries and mangoes. Aguillar, who was wearing an ankle monitor because he is seeking asylum, ran from the deputy and was arrested on a resisting arrest charge. The District Attorney dismissed that charge on Tuesday, KTVU first reported. Aguillar’s story grabbed headlines because a passerby took a now-viral photo of him sitting on the ground in cuffs as a deputy rummaged through his fruit stand. Police critics held a “fruit in” to decry what appears to be an anti-immigrant sentiment against people trying to earn a living even if they don’t have the proper permits to do so. The sheriff’s office has said that deputies have a responsibility to respond to complaints and uphold county health codes.

But the case of the female fruit vendor, identified as Lydia Garcia, has not been made openly known until Thursday, when two witnesses shared photos and video of the event with KTVU.

Ivan Castro, 21, who lives nearby spotted the  woman being put into the back of an Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies at Via Chiquita and Bockman Road just before 3 p.m.

“I buy fruit from her all the time,” Castro told KTVU on Thursday. “She’s a nice fruit lady. She’s not a threat at all.”

He group texted his buddies to come see what was going on.

His friend, Tony Perez, also 21 and a student at Laney College, showed up and shot some video of the aftermath of the arrest. In the video, he asks a deputy why he is taking the woman’s fruit, and the deputy answers he needs it for “evidence.” The woman is in the back of the patrol car at the time. A man in a white undershirt looks distraught and is heard asking Lopez to help him, especially to translate what is going on in English.

Perez said he told the deputies they should not be harassing her, and they told him to leave. It was obvious to Perez the man and the woman were “terrified.”