Monday, September 01, 2014

El Mezcal mystery explained by charges

By ABBY ECKEL, Herald Staff Writer | 9/27/2013

Why did one of Ottawa’s most popular restaurant’s close in mid-June? Now residents know.

Community members shared mixed emotions after hearing the former manager of El Mezcal Mexican restaurant, Alex Sanchez Jr., 33, had been charged with nine counts related to the harboring and employment of illegal immigrants in a federal indictment handed down Wednesday by U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom’s office in Kansas City, Kan.

Why did one of Ottawa’s most popular restaurant’s close in mid-June? Now residents know.

Community members shared mixed emotions after hearing the former manager of El Mezcal Mexican restaurant, Alex Sanchez Jr., 33, had been charged with nine counts related to the harboring and employment of illegal immigrants in a federal indictment handed down Wednesday by U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom’s office in Kansas City, Kan.

“Seriously people I don’t have a problem with people wanting to better their lives by living in the United States, but there is a process to follow. Do it legally,” Susan Luthi said on The Herald’s Facebook page.

The building, owned by Tequila, Inc., has been dark and empty since El Mezcal, 402 S. Main St., was forced to shut its doors June 14 because of an investigation. Federal investigators had been reluctant to share any information about the incident. The building has been home to several Mexican restaurants through the years and some community members are wondering what will happen to the building.

“The question is, what becomes of the property? Hate to see it sitting vacant,” Chris Johnston said on The Herald’s Facebook page.

El Mezcal remains closed and its future is uncertain as the property might or might not be seized in the investigation, Jim Cross, public information officer for U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom, said. Federal authorities have yet to make that determination, Cross said.

Some were sad to see El Mezcal forced to close its doors, they said, while others like Tom Ferguson said they were glad there was still an El Mezcal in Topeka. Other locations still operate in Lawrence.

Sanchez has been charged with four counts of harboring undocumented aliens for financial gain and five counts of encouraging undocumented aliens to reside in the United States for financial gain, according to the federal indictment. Employees worked at El Mezcal and other restaurants affiliated with the defendant or Tequila, Inc., the indictment said.

An investigation started in June 2011 when the Department of Homeland Security received information El Mezcal was not completing I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification forms and a notice of inspection was served to Sanchez, the indictment said.

Sanchez received a final order in November 2011 requiring him to cease employing undocumented aliens and pay a fine related to the violations, according to the indictment.

But Sanchez continued to employ illegal immigrants, paying them in cash and providing housing to them, knowing they were not lawfully present in the United States, the indictment asserted. From September 2011 to June 2013, Sanchez continued to employ undocumented workers and provide housing, as well as not maintain proper employment records of the workers, according to the indictment.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, with assistance from other local and regional agencies, shut down the restaurant June 14 as part of the criminal investigation.

The investigation is ongoing, Cross said Friday. He would not speculate if other people might face charges in connection with the case.

If convicted, Sanchez faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 on each count, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

comments powered by Disqus