WEST BOUNTIFUL, Utah (ABC4) — Three executive employees for a landscaping company based in West Bountiful were taken into custody on Monday, accused of human trafficking and subjecting Mexican immigrants to subpar living conditions, underpaid work and threats of deportation.
Tyler Brinkman, 57, Clayton Phillipps, 49, and Adam Perea, 35, were booked into the Davis County Jail and face seven counts of first-degree felony aggravated human trafficking. Brinkman and Perea additionally face a second-degree felony charge of pattern of unlawful activity, according to court documents.
The arrests come after a six-month investigation sparked by a confidential tip submitted to the National Trafficking Hotline and passed on to the Utah Attorney General’s Office, court documents say.
A probable cause statement reveals investigators spoke to seven different alleged victims who said they were recruited from Mexico to work for Rubicon in West Bountiful. The victims reportedly told investigators they were enticed by the promise of a guaranteed 40-hour work week and pay ranging anywhere from $17 to $20 per hour, as well as help obtaining a VISA to work in the U.S.
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The victims said they were paid for their work through a “virtual bank,” which they could access money from but had no control over the account itself. According to court documents, Perea and Rubicon were listed as the account holders on at least one of the victim’s accounts.
The victims said they would sometimes go months without any work or they would not be paid for the work they had done for “not completing the job on time.” Many of the victims said they were hired by Rubicon for snow removal and to drive snowplows, however, they did not have driver’s licenses and were not taught how to operate the snowplow properly, according to court documents.
The workers were allegedly forced to come into work and given minimal safety equipment for the work they were doing, investigators say. Some workers reported they weren’t even able to take time off for illness or other medical reasons. One employee said at one point he was forced into working a 24-hour shift with only a one-hour break.
Even with the work provided, victims said Rubicon executives would deduct money from their paychecks for things such as a mandatory phone provided by Rubicon, alleged car accidents, using “foul language,” and repairs to work equipment. Rubicon would also allegedly deduct a “rent payment” for housing the victims were allegedly forced into living in by Rubicon executives.
The houses, which were allegedly located across the Wasatch Front and required for the workers to live in, did not have furniture, pots, pans or other simple housewares, according to one victim. Another victim reported living in a four-bedroom home with seven other workers, where three individuals were sleeping on the floor in one room. They were allegedly given a small amount of canned food including soup, rice, beans, ham and eggs to feed everyone in the home. Many of the victims allegedly relied on finding free furniture online in order to get a bed to sleep on.
Perea and Phillipps allegedly regularly threatened the victims with deportation when they would come to collect overdue rent, according to court documents. However, the victims reported when they began looking for work elsewhere for money to pay rent and buy food, they were again threatened with deportation. Some victims reported they or coworkers they lived with were fired from Rubicon shortly after voicing concerns.
Investigators said they received witness testimony from non-VISA employees at Rubicon that backed up the victims’ claims.
One witness, a former employee of Rubicon, allegedly told investigators that he saw workers shoveling snow in tennis shoes, that workers didn’t have knowledge of U.S. traffic laws or how to operate large vehicles, and how to use highways such as I-15.
“[The witness] relayed a particular story where a worker was driving a Rubicon truck on I-15
from Bountiful to Spanish Fork,” reads a probable cause affidavit. “The worker never left the righthand lane, taking every exit ramp and on-ramp the entire drive.”
The witness also told police they witnessed the workers at home sleeping on small piles of clothing for bedding. The witness said some of those workers were sleeping in the company truck for warmth as the workers that lived in the houses regularly had no gas or hot water in the middle of winter.
Investigators said the witness recalled a conversation with Perea where he allegedly claimed to have learned how to bend rules effectively saying, “You’d be shocked how many illegal things I’ve done for Rubicon in just the past few weeks.”
According to the probable cause statement, investigators learned that Rubicon had applied for access to temporary non-agriculture workers with the VISA program through the Department of Labor. Tyler Brinkman allegedly wrote the declaration of need, saying Rubicon had “no other means of accessing the necessary workers other than to seek labor outside of the U.S.”
Through the application process, Brinkman allegedly certified that all VISA workers would be provided the necessary equipment to safely perform the tasks without charge or deduction and that workers would be provided appropriate lodging. Brinkman also allegedly certified that the workers would have 40-hour work weeks at a minimum hourly rate of $17.21.
The law firm representing Rubicon issued a statement following the arrests of the three executives and the charges from the attorney general’s office.
“Rubicon denies any wrongdoing and has complied in good faith with all applicable laws,” the statement said. “Rubicon is cooperating with the investigation and believes it will ultimately be vindicated.”
Charges are allegations only. All arrested persons are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.