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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Plea deal ends tangled case
The owner of a check-cashing business gets probation.
By MOLLY MOORHEAD
Published June 15, 2007
Jose Frias will serve 10 years of probation for running a check-cashing operation without a proper state license.
[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
DADE CITY - Jose Frias pleaded guilty in court Thursday morning and checked out of jail after lunchtime.
The owner of Del Carmen Mexican store on Seventh Street and La Onda nightclub in Tommytown will serve 10 years of probation for running a check-cashing operation without a proper state license.
That's the deal he agreed to before ever stepping into Judge Pat Siracusa's courtroom Thursday morning.
But there was much more to his case, a puzzling mix of civil and criminal matters, money - lots of money - and an uncertain future as an illegal resident of the United States.
Frias, a 41-year-old from Mexico, was charged in March with racketeering, a first-degree felony in which a pattern of illegal acts is alleged. His arrest was a shock locally. Frias, a former farmworker, had not only risen up as a leader in the Hispanic community, he had made strides in Dade City at large, joining local business groups and sponsoring a youth soccer team.
But the allegations against him were breathtaking. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office, which investigated him for two years, said Frias filtered $48-million through his business, in checks he cashed for migrant workers and money he wired to Mexico. Authorities alleged connections to illegal drugs.
In a March 22 raid, they seized $675,000, half in cash found at his home and businesses, the other half from an armored truck that happened to drive up during the raid.
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The money part was resolved first. In early May, attorneys for Frias and his wife, Carmen, worked out a civil settlement with the Sheriff's Office. The agency that investigated him would keep $525,000 of the seized funds. Florida law allows it, if the money was used in the commission of a felony.
Normally the Sheriff's Office would have had to prove that in court, except that Frias agreed to give up the money. Another $75,000 went to pay his attorneys, and he kept the rest.
Mike Randall, the sheriff's attorney, called the circumstances of the forfeiture odd but said all the parties involved were eager to resolve it amicably.
"They didn't see the need to have a hearing," Randall said Thursday.
The forfeiture was not connected to the plea deal, attorneys for all sides said.
In the meantime, Carmen Frias hosted a Cinco de Mayo party with traditional Mexican dancers, food and games for friends and customers behind the grocery store.
Criminal case faltered
Next the criminal side was resolved. In another sense, it deteriorated.
The State Attorney's Office conducted its own investigation, as it does in all criminal cases, and filed charges. Not racketeering, but two counts of practicing a business without a license - third-degree felonies each with a maximum five-year prison term.
Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia said that's what he thought he could prove.
"What you have is a business owner who is up-front with the Sheriff's Office, who says, 'Yes, I was cashing checks and I didn't have a license,'" he said. "We felt that was the appropriate charge, taking into consideration the defendant's cooperation."
Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said the outcome of the case is still just.
"With the money that we are receiving from forfeiture, the community is not coming out empty-handed in this investigation," he said.
He did not know how it would be spent.
Delays, more delays
The hearing where Frias would change his plea was delayed and delayed, because of scheduling conflicts but also because the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement had a hold on Frias. Once he pleaded in state court, he could be transferred to a holding facility in Miami until his status was resolved.
In court last week, defense attorney Mark Rankin persuaded Judge Siracusa to give him one more week to sort things out. The lawyer did, and ICE lifted the hold Friday.
So Thursday morning, Frias walked into court, shackled at the wrists and ankles, wearing a dark blue jail jumpsuit. He smiled at his wife and children and numerous family friends in the audience.
Siracusa accepted the plea, and at the Sheriff's Office's request, withheld an adjudication of guilt, meaning Frias is technically not a felon. Doll, the sheriff's spokesman, said it was because Frias had been cooperative.
But before it was over, the judge had something to say.
"This entire case is baffling to me," Siracusa told Frias. "I don't understand how you're still here, quite honestly. I don't know why you haven't been deported.
"Are you even paying income taxes?"
"I'm hoping that ICE will take a look at this, and if they do I'm hoping they deport you."
Outside the courtroom, Frias' friend Ron Perrone shuddered at the judge's speech.
"I thought it was very heavy," said Perrone, 71, of San Antonio. "I know the man to be a good man."
And Rankin defended his client.
"While Mr. Frias may have been here illegally, he's a good person," Rankin said. "He's the kind of person we want in this country."