MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — Prosecutors say the federal case accusing Gulf Coast men of hiring illegal immigrants for a government project is tied to similar violations six years ago, and that a Biloxi business was involved and later began using shell companies to hide the hiring practice.
After a lawyer for one of three businessmen arrested in November filed a motion to dismiss his case, prosecutors brought up a 2004 case they say shows the businessman and others have been involved in hiring illegal immigrants for Coast construction projects for years.
The plea bargain of a man convicted in the old case — after authorities found 13 illegal immigrants living in Biloxi in 2004 — is expected to be used as evidence against the three businessmen recently indicted.
Nicolas Verdin-Cruz of Mexico, in his plea bargain in the 2004 case, admitted he was in the country illegally and that he had hired and transported other illegal immigrants for Artisan Textures of Biloxi.
Prosecutors say the company, now called Artisan Construction, has been using illegal immigrants on construction projects across the Coast, including jobs at Keesler Air Force Base, the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and the former Isle of Capri casino, now called The Isle.
Artisan CEO Randy Weitzel, construction manager Edwood “Woody” Brodtmann and longtime foreman Agustin Arcadia were arrested in November on charges of conspiring to defraud the government by hiring and harboring illegal immigrants. Weitzel also faces charges of falsifying payroll records for a federal government project.
The investigation in 2004 began after a concerned citizen lodged complaints with Biloxi police about illegal immigrants living in two homes in Biloxi.
The neighbor went digging through the trash outside where the workers were living, found an assortment of paperwork and turned it over to authorities. It was the bank statements, canceled checks, wire-transfer receipts, vehicle-insurance receipts and satellite-television bills of Carlos Sanchez-Guevara.
Verdin-Cruz claimed his name was Carlos Sanchez-Guevara and that he had legal credentials but federal agents soon learned his real identity and illegal status.
He had a fake immigration card, papers showing he was born in California and a driver’s license from Oregon. He told agents he’d paid someone in Atlanta $50 to make the immigration card and mail it to him.
He also had a credit card in his real name.
Verdin-Cruz told agents he had worked for Artisan for two years, and hired and led crews of illegal immigrants for the company at projects at Keesler and the Isle of Capri casino.
Verdin-Cruz told agents he received checks from Artisan, which he put into his checking account and used to pay the workers $9 an hour. He said he was paid $10 an hour.
In 2005, Verdin-Cruz was sentenced to four months in prison.
Artisan, headquartered in Biloxi, has been in business for 14 years and specializes in decorative exterior walls such as stucco and plaster. Its clients have included hotels and casinos, condominiums and government. It has worked on projects including the Dan M. Russell Jr. Federal Courthouse in Gulfport, St. Patrick High School in Biloxi and the Hard Rock Casino.
Artisan’s work at Keesler was part of the construction of Cody Hall, a $26-million project. The 180,000-square-foot technical training building opened in July 2005.
Weitzel, 50, of Gulfport; Brodtmann, 60, of Bay St. Louis; and Arcadia, 48, of Vancleave, are free on bonds and awaiting trial sometime after the first of the year. Prosecutors said the shell companies Arcadia set up for Artisan included JA Construction, operated out of his home in Vancleave, and AQ Stucco.