Business owner close to plea deal

Published May 5, 2007

DADE CITY - Jose Frias' downtown general store and Tommytown nightclub held the interest of the Pasco Sheriff's Office for more than 2 1/2 years.

In a flashy March raid, authorities said they found hundreds of thousands in cash at Frias' home and businesses. Court documents hinted at drug activity and money laundering.

The raid surprised the customers of Del Carmen, the Mexican general store known for its friendly service, home-cooked meals and gigantic pinatas.

Now Frias' lawyer says the case is nearing conclusion in the form of a plea deal.

But the plea won't be to racketeering. Or money laundering. Or illegal drug schemes.

The charges: two counts of unlicensed business practice.

Assistant state attorney Manny Garcia, who filed the charges against Frias in April, confirmed that a plea deal is possible.

The maximum penalty on the charges would be 10 years, he said. But Mark Rankin, Frias' attorney, said he expects his client to be home in a few weeks.

"At the end of the day I think everybody agrees they the Frias family are good people," Rankin said. "There's an issue of whether or not they had the correct licensing."

As a Mexican national, Frias' legal status in the United States is unclear. His lawyer said that Frias' goal is to become a citizen.

Meanwhile, Frias' family is planning a party to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

The celebration is to run from 4 to 8 p.m. today behind the Seventh Street store and will feature traditional Mexican dancers, food and games. The party will continue at La Onda Dance Club, where bands are scheduled to play.

The party is to thank loyal customers, said Carmen Frias, his wife.

Ivan Frias, 14, said his dad is proud of the family for keeping the business going while he has been in jail. The store has been given clearance to send money to Mexico and will soon be able to legally cash checks for migrant workers, said Carmen Frias.

"When he gets out, he will have more energy to serve the community," Carmen Frias said. "Everything is getting fixed. The process is very slow."

The case authorities built earlier this spring described a far more sophisticated operation.

A search warrant alleged that Frias filtered $48-million in checks he had cashed for migrant farm workers, money transfers sent back to Mexico and other laundering methods as part of a criminal enterprise involving the drug trade.

But the current charges reflect only sending checks to Mexico without the proper license.

During the March 22 raid, deputies from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, working in conjunction with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, seized $675,000 from Frias' home and businesses, about half of it in cash, according to the sheriff's office. In the case of a plea agreement, Frias would not get that money back, said Lt. Robert Sullivan.

Staff Writer Molly Moorhead contributed to this report. Gina Pace can be reached at (352) 521-6518 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6518. Her e-mail address is gpace@sptimes.com.