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Novi couple faces charges in fire that killed five; case raises "human smuggling" worries

Five undocumented workers from Kim's Garden were living in the basement of the owner's home when they were killed in a house fire.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

A suburban Detroit couple is facing federal charges for “harboring undocumented immigrants for commercial gain.”

The charges come after five young men, aged 16-23, died in a fire at Roger Tam and Ada Lei’s home last month.

Officials say the men were all Mexican nationals in the U.S. illegally.

They apparently lived in the Novi home’s basement, and worked at the couple’s nearby Chinese restaurant, Kim's Garden.

They were unable to escape when a mattress caught fire there Jan. 31.

Novi police chief David Molloy said the fire’s cause is still officially “undetermined,” though officials haven’t ruled out careless smoking.

Investigators noted several fire code violations, and Molloy said a smoke detector had been disabled, though it’s not clear who disabled it.

Molloy said it appears the men cooked and slept in the basement, and neighbors in the quiet subdivision were apparently unaware they even lived there.

“It seems they would work 12, 13, 14 hour days. They would be picked up by Mr. Tam, and they would be brought back at the end of the night. So it would be almost impossible for the neighbors to even see them,” Molloy said.

Detroit U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade says the case raises red flags about possible larger human smuggling operations, and a broader investigation is ongoing.

“It certainly concerns us that there may be others here, and that there may be smuggling routes, or leaders and organizers that are helping people get into the country,” McQuade said.

“But we thought it was important to act quickly, so we could make sure that Mr. Tam and Ms. Lei were not able to flee, and so that we could begin our investigation into other potential smugglers.”

Tam is originally from Hong Kong, and Lei from mainland China. Both have been in the U.S. for some time and are naturalized citizens.

Tam appeared in federal court for the first time Friday. Authorities say Lei is now hospitalized, but will surrender to authorities once she’s released.

The charges they face carry a potential 10-year prison sentence, though McQuade says there is a potential “sentencing enhancement for harboring [undocumented people] where death results.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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