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(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Special Agent Mick Spilker arrests two suspects at a home in West Point during a raid by the SECURE Strike Force. The collection of agents, funded by a federal grant, targets major crime inside Utah's undocumented immigrant population.
Overcoming Utah immigrants’ mistrust aided criminal case
Crime » Strike force works to build bridges, but deportation fears still foster daily crime.
First Published May 11 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated May 13 2014 11:09 am

The ultimatum was as harsh as it was ineffective: Testify or face deportation.

It was no way to persuade a scared undocumented immigrant to testify about how Victor Manuel Rax sexually abused him and other boys, manipulated them into selling drugs at Utah high schools and threatened to kill their families to keep them quiet.

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"Deport me to hell," the boy, fearing for his family, allegedly told investigators.

He was not alone. For years, Rax and criminals like him evaded capture because their victims were as afraid of law enforcement as they were of their tormentors.

It’s a widespread problem among the estimated 110,000 undocumented immigrants in Utah: Criminals target them, and police find it difficult to do much about it because immigrants worry they’ll be deported.

Some agencies, prosecutors and even immigration officials are working to ease that fear by promising victims immunity and anonymity and working to allow them to stay in the country. But those promises sometimes come with strings or loopholes, fueling old worries that law enforcement isn’t to be trusted.

The case against Rax, 42, who was eventually arrested and charged before committing suicide in jail late last month, has served as an example of what can go right when law-enforcement agencies earn their way into the immigrant community through trust rather than fear.

Years in the making • Rax had been on investigators’ radar since 2009.

That’s when allegations of sexual abuse and threats began to surface. But victims were afraid to talk to local police agencies and investigations stalled.

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For several years the state’s SECURE Strike Force on immigrant crime had worked to build inroads into the immigrant community, beginning in school gymnasiums and lunchrooms, civic gatherings, churches and libraries.

"We would go anywhere they would allow us to speak," said Leo Lucey, a section chief at the attorney general’s office who helps oversee the strike force. "We wanted to have the conversation with people that this is only going to work if the community is willing to come forward and talk to law enforcement."

At first, few were. But case by case, the trust grew.

Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino, has worked as a go-between for victims and police.

He recalled his first encounter with the strike force: It was the case of Jose Gonzalez, who was ultimately convicted of impersonating a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer and extorting and threatening victims.

"At first [the victims] said, ‘We absolutely don’t want to talk to anybody about it. We don’t want to get deported.’ "

But when one victim — crying and shaking — begged him for help, Yapias decided to approach the strike force.

He received assurances the team wouldn’t seek deportations. Yapias took the word back to the community. They set up a meeting. Fifteen victims showed up.

The strike force has similarly worked with clergy and the Mexican Consulate to build trust, officials said, and has followed through with promises for victim protection.

"We aren’t an extension of ICE or immigration," Lucey said. "The vast majority of our cases come from victims and witnesses who step forward — and the vast majority of them are illegal immigrants."

It wasn’t until this year that the strike force began to make strides in the Rax case, and the relationship it had forged with community leaders — including Yapias — was key.

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