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Overcoming Utah immigrants’ mistrust aided criminal case
Crime » Strike force works to build bridges, but deportation fears still foster daily crime.

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When word spread that police were seeking help to prosecute Rax, "Ignacio" contacted Yapias because he knew and trusted him.

Ignacio says his stepson became involved with Rax, disappearing with him for days at a time and hiding his activities because he was threatened into submission.

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Rax showed the boy "they have a lot of guns, a lot of people, and can do bad things to his family," said Ignacio, who The Salt Lake Tribune agreed not to identify.

After assuring Ignacio that he trusted the strike force, Yapias put him in contact with officers.

Clergy members did the same for other victims.

Eventually, droves of witnesses came forward with tales of horrific abuse and intimidation.

Abuse, threats • One witness told police that Rax had "black magic" and spoke in tongues to a god he called "Santa Muerte" — the saint of death. He also allegedly drugged some boys until they were unconscious and then sexually assaulted them.

Rax and his brother were arrested Feb. 12 and Rax was ultimately charged in 3rd District Court with 63 felonies ranging from sodomy on a child to human trafficking to drugs. Investigators believe he raped children as young as 9 and threatened their families — with violence and deportation — to force them to sell drugs and submit to abuse.

Police identified 16 of the victims, according to the attorney general’s office.

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"Every single victim we encountered ended up cooperating," Lucey said. "Had many of those victims not been brave enough to come forward, many of them with a lot to lose by coming forward, we would not have been able to prosecute this case."

Rax’s brother, Alfredo Rax, 35, was charged with tampering with a witness and retaliation against a witness, both third-degree felonies, for allegedly approaching witnesses in this case and telling them they would be "taken care of financially" if they refused to testify, and that they would "regret it" if they cooperated.

When Victor Manuel Rax was found dead April 28, having hanged himself inside a solitary cell, Attorney General Sean Reyes said not bringing him to trial would spare his child victims the "trauma of testifying in criminal court proceedings."

"While his guilt or innocence will now never be proven through the justice system," Reyes said, "if he was guilty, as we alleged, then we are comforted that many children and their families will live in fear no more."

Perhaps not of Rax, officials say, but these crimes — of extortion, manipulation and abuse of undocumented immigrants — happen daily.

"It happens all the time," Lucey said. "Every day, there are more victims out there who are being taken advantage of because of their immigration status. Because people know that these victims are less likely to come forward, to cooperate. Because they’re afraid."

Ignacio says the Rax case has made a big difference in the minds of immigrants.

"I would tell others now: Don’t be afraid of going to the police."

New approach • The newer notion that victims of serious crime should be helped — not punished — regardless of their immigration status was apparent at a news conference earlier this year when some enforcement agencies discussed their desire to stop immigration scams.

"We’re not going to punish them for being a victim. We want to help them," said Jeanne M. Kent, Salt Lake City field office director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

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