U.S. Attorney: Man never told 911 operator of people in burning house basement

Five immigrant workers from Mexico died in a tragic house fire and now their boss and his wife have been charged for illegally housing them inside the basement of a Novi house.

Roger Tam was taken into custody Thursday on charges for harboring illegal immigrants for commercial gain. Investigators say all five victims lived at his Novi home and worked at his restaurant in exchange for cash pay.

The family of Tam, 55, walked out of federal district court and did not want to make any comment.
Roger Tam had his arraignment Friday afternoon and will remain in custody until his detention hearing next Wednesday.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said that Roger Tam did not tell the 911 operator that people were inside the house.

"There is evidence of the 911 call where Roger Tam did not disclose that there were people in that basement," McQuade said. "And had the firefighters known there were people in the basement, perhaps they would have approached that job a little differently."

The investigation goes back to Jan. 31 when five illegal immigrants who lived in a house owned by Tam died in a fire. Investigators say Tam arrived at the home on Mystic Forrest Drive on that Sunday to take the five males, the ages of 23 and younger to work at his restaurant Kim's Garden nearby in Novi.

"Mr. Tam is a really good man," said Samuel Bennett, Tam's attorney. "What happened is a tragedy. He loved all five of the men that passed away like they were his own family."

While laying out new details in the investigation, US Attorney Barbara McQuade stated investigators found beds, futons and personal items in the basement.

There were also a number of fire violations, including a smoke detector that was disabled - while the fire was caused by careless smoking.

"There is a multitude of building code violations we're following up on with our community development department," said Novi police Chief David Molloy. "There was no egress window where someone should be able to get out of a basement, particularly a home built at this time, so those are other violations we're taking a look at."

Investigators say the men worked for an average of $2,000 a month paid in cash. It is not known exactly when the victims came to the country illegally or the routes they took to get here from Mexico.

But the U.S. attorney says Tam and his wife also harbored the brother of one of the victims last year, and they're working to figure out if Tam has a long history of harboring illegal immigrants.

"That's a part of what we will be investigating with this long term investigation about is there an organization that is coordinating this," said Marlon Miller, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Roger Tam's wife, 48-year-old Ada Lei, is also facing the same charges for harboring illegal immigrants.

She's in the hospital for reasons not related to the fire. The charges carry 10 years in prison, but given the fact people died, they could face life in prison.

Investigators don't have any evidence showing the victims were forced to live under these circumstances. But they allegedly had to adhere to a strict routine. They slept inside the home at night, and worked at the restaurant during the day, and didn't have transportation to go anywhere else.

Also, the drive time between the house and restaurant is no more than 5 minutes.
 

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