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Florida farm workers tell how drugs, debt bind them in modern slavery

HASTINGS — LeRoy Smith thought he had hit rock bottom when he found himself trolling Atlanta's gay district, looking to exchange sex acts for a hot hit off a crack pipe. Then he wound up on a Florida farm near the small town of Hastings, being bilked blind, he says, by a man with a fifth-grade education, sweating all day for a few dirty dollars, with no way to escape from the middle-of-nowhere camp.

He did not think slavery existed in modern America. He knows better now.

The recruiters had found LeRoy Smith playing chess in a park in Jacksonville on May 1, 2010. They pegged him for a black man with a back strong enough for farm work and an addiction strong enough to stick around and work for nothing. He was hooked on crack, but he had enough sense to recognize peonage when he saw it, and to slip away by night to safety.

And now he's talking. He filed a lawsuit last month in federal court against the man he says enslaved him. And he's talking to the Tampa Bay Times in hopes that publicity will cleanse Florida of indentured servitude.

The man he accuses says it's all a lie. Confronted with the allegations, Ronald Uzzle dismissed them and told a reporter to get off his property.

There's something going on in this small town and it might be hard to care because the victims are often homeless black men who live mostly in the shadows. Many have criminal records and sins in their past.

But many served in the armed forces and lived good lives before they dropped out of society and wound up in bondage.

Authorities have failed to stop a form of slavery that begins with indebtedness and sometimes doesn't end until a worker is dead.

And it continues today.

• • •

LeRoy Smith drew the blinds closed in a room at the Comfort Inn near St. Augustine, a safe place arranged by a friend who had helped him escape the camp and promised him a Greyhound ticket out of town.

Smith was nervous when he was interviewed in June 2010, but he wanted to share his story. He wanted people to know what goes on in rural Florida, what happens to the men who pick your potatoes and cabbage.

An Air Force brat, he lived around the world. As a teen, he landed in Columbia, S.C., got an economics degree at Morris College. In the early '80s he worked at a bank structuring 401(k)s.

He had met his biological father late in life. His father and his father's family were "immersed in the drug culture" and so, to fit in, Smith partook. Cocaine quickly became his single pursuit. He had been married, played competitive tennis, bought a house in the historic district in Greenville, S.C. None of that mattered anymore. He lost his $50,000 a year job as a manager of a home finance company and began touring America via the best crack houses.

"I've gone from Betty Ford to living in a Ford," he said.

He served time in prison for drug possession and had been out about a year when the white van pulled up at the park where Smith was playing chess. A friend lured him on board. He said he had heard the farm labor contractor in the driver's seat was fair and ran a clean camp in Hastings, a small town not far away.

What Smith found when he got there: "Slavery. Abuse. Overwork. Deplorable, unsanitary conditions. Drugs," he said. "The only reason there's no shackles is because now they make the people submit to the cocaine. That's what they use to basically control the people."

Specifically, he found an overcrowded bunkhouse full of elderly, drug-addicted black men and one decrepit bathroom. Before he even arrived, the man in the driver's seat had loaned each of the 15 recruits in the van $10 for a bite to eat, on the condition they pay him back with 100 percent interest.

At the bunkhouse, he said, the men formed three lines. One was for loans, also at 100 percent interest. One was to buy shots of Wild Irish Rose or grape "Mad Dog 20/20" out of an ice chest. And one was to buy crack. By the end of the first night, penniless Smith already owed $50.

Over the course of the two months Smith was at the camp, he never received a paycheck. Though he mowed and scrubbed toilets and cleaned shower stalls, he ran up $210 in debt. The thought that he was being bilked, that there was no way out until he paid his debt, angered him.

"I had no idea where we were," he said. "All there were was potato fields and asphalt roads. … You're just stuck there. This is where you reside until the season is over or until you get out."

He didn't feel as if he could go to the police. He got the impression everybody in town was connected by blood or business.

The other workers seemed content to live in the system. They had easy access to drugs and alcohol, so it didn't matter that they could never escape the debt, even if a paycheck for a 70-hour week of grading potatoes amounted to $40. Some had been there more than 10 years.

"There's no recourse, because we live on the fringes of society," he said. "I didn't believe it. I couldn't fathom it existing in modern day society."

Smith's story is corroborated by other men who have escaped. Bennie Cooks, a 57-year-old Army veteran, said he got stuck on a crew from April 2008 until he broke away in November 2009.

"They'd intimidate people," Cooks told the Times seven months after he escaped. "If you owed them money, then one guy'd say, 'You owe me money. You can't leave.' He'd threaten you."

Cooks saw a crew boss knock out a man for drinking on the job.

Cooks was recruited from a homeless shelter in Savannah, Ga. The farm labor contractor promised him work, a nice place to live and plenty of food.

"I rolled down there expecting good things to happen, but they never did," Cooks said. At a camp miles from the nearest highway, surrounded by fields, Cooks found living quarters crammed with five or six people in a small room, dirty mattresses and meals of hotdogs and grits.

"People come on these things expecting to make money," said a man named Lonnie Smith, who snuck away in 2010 after three years working to pay off his debts to a farm labor contractor. "But you leave with nothing, and sometimes worse."

Lonnie Smith, a trained chef who said he has worked at the University of North Florida and restaurants on South Beach, said he was addicted and desperate when a contractor recruited him at a mission in Jacksonville.

"It sounds pretty good when a man hasn't got a job," he said.

But he, too, was indebted before he even arrived in Hastings on a Friday night. By Monday morning, he was already $80 in the hole. Add on $75 for weekly food and rent, plus loans for snacks and alcohol during the week, plus paying a driver $5 for each ride to town to buy supplies, and a 40-hour workweek at minimum wage wasn't enough to cover his first week's costs.

"It's hard to keep up with how it goes in a circle, but no money leaves that camp," he said.

He worked three years before he made his break from what workers called "the Island." He woke at 1 a.m. and hurried to the barn by the light of the moon. He hid his work clothes and split.

"Two thousand years and this s--- ain't changed," he said, gray hair poking out from under his ball cap. "Ain't a damn thing changed from yesterday. Ain't no yesterday. Ain't no tomorrow. Hastings set way back away from everything."

• • •

On hot afternoons in Hastings, bent men slink into the shade of the carwash beside Taing's convenience store and laundry on Church Street. They smoke generics and take quick pulls off bottles of Wild Turkey.

The traffic is light down Main Street, past boarded-up buildings and a few scattered churches and businesses.

In the Potato Capital of Florida, where 14 percent of the town's families live under the poverty level, slavery is not new. Maps from the 1770s show a plantation on the banks of the St. Johns River where a former British parliamentarian used 200 African slaves to farm his vast swath of fertile land. After the Civil War, loggers recruited workers with the promise of steady pay. But once on the camp, black workers were stuck making as little as 8 cents for two weeks of work, after employers withdrew charges for room and board.

Logging gave way to other crops, but peonage never disappeared. In 2005, police raided the camp of well-known contractor Ron Evans and found more than 100 rocks of crack cocaine. Evans, of nearby East Palatka, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2007 for luring homeless laborers to his camp, giving them crack and alcohol from the company store and keeping them deep in debt. His wife, Jequita, was sentenced to 15 years for conspiracy to distribute crack and structuring cash transactions to avoid financial reporting requirements.

The stiff penalties were meant to send a message, but laborers say the remaining contractors learned from the case. Instead of selling drugs directly to workers, they invited relatives to distribute drugs and alcohol when they weren't around, letting the contractors deny they knew what was going on.

For years, lawsuits, settlements and federal labor investigations have exposed the contractors in Putnam and St. Johns counties for holding back wages, selling drugs and flat-out refusing to pay workers. But the contractors often settle, paying plaintiffs minor amounts of back wages or small fines.

Greg Schell, a lawyer with Florida Legal Services who is representing LeRoy Smith and another man, Dennis Nash, in their suit against contractor Ronald Uzzle, said the practice is on its way out.

"It's still there," he said, "but it's not as severe as it was with Ron Evans."

It's hard to estimate the extent of the problem, said Weeun Wang, a lawyer with Farmworker Justice in Washington, D.C., who is also representing Smith and Nash. Local farmworker advocates say there are between five and 10 families who use similar methods, and each employs as many as 50 workers during potato and cabbage season.

"I think it's persistent because employers still want to drive their labor costs down," Wang said. "This is a way to do it."

Schell and Wang hope that targeting the farmers as well as the contractors will send a message.

"You've got to get the employers out of this mind-set and make it riskier for them to use this kind of labor," Wang said. "The reason it's hard to eradicate is because the workers don't step forward. It's very difficult to get them to do something for themselves."

• • •

The farmer named in the recent lawsuit, Thomas R. Lee, who owns Bulls-Hit Ranch and Farm, could not be reached. A woman who answered the phone at Bulls-Hit said he has been ill for more than a year.

"We have no comment," she said. She would not identify the lawyer representing Lee and Bulls-Hit.

A few miles away, Ronald Uzzle stood at his camp on May 4 and said he has never been subject to a lawsuit.

"First time," he said.

Not true. He has been a defendant in three previous labor and racketeering lawsuits, in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Two were combined. All were eventually settled before trial, with defendants paying $17,000 in back wages in one case and $50,000 plus legal fees in another.

Uzzle has a long record of shoddy management. In 1993, he wrecked his van and three workers were killed. He has been the subject of several U.S. Department of Labor investigations. In 1997, Uzzle was cited for "willful violations" of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. He failed to disclose the terms of employment to workers, failed to post a sign listing workers' rights, failed to keep employer records, failed to provide wage statements to workers and failed to ensure housing, health and safety.

In 1998, Uzzle called the sheriff's office when one of his workers attacked another with a machete, splitting his head open. After the worker served prison time, Uzzle hired him again. In January 2003, the man stabbed another worker to death with a knife. A few years later, two former employees signed onto a lawsuit accusing Uzzle's son and an accomplice of attacking them.

In a deposition in 2006, Uzzle, 59, said he inherited the operation from an uncle. He has led crews since the late 1980s. He acknowledged needing help with his bookkeeping because he has trouble reading and writing. But he denied he threatened workers or attacked them or loaned workers money.

"Nobody gets in debt with me," he told the lawyer.

Uzzle laughed when he was told of the latest allegations.

"You can see the camp yourself," he said. "Does this look bad? I ain't got nothing to hide."

He said the men are free to leave whenever they want. He does not keep them in debt. He charges $55 a week for a bunk and three squares a day. Uzzle said the bunkhouse has central heat and air. He said he doesn't charge for rides to the store and doesn't withhold paychecks.

What about the drugs?

"There's no drugs sold on this camp," he said. "I'm not going to tell you people don't do drugs, but if people want to do drugs, they do it. I can't stop them."

He said the men are making it up.

Uzzle disappeared inside a trailer and brought out a worker. Edward Hardy, 64, said he has lived on Uzzle's camp for years. Said anytime somebody wants to leave, Uzzle gives him money to buy the man a bus ticket. He said Uzzle treats the men fairly and he has never heard any threats or intimidation.

But Uzzle wouldn't let a reporter look inside.

"I'm through with you," he said. "You need to go."

A few miles away, at Bulls-Hit Ranch and Farm, a group of men clustered around a potato grader in a warehouse. The season is under way, and tractors are pulling crops out of the fields. This is when the contractors fan out to homeless shelters to find new workers, those who don't yet know what they're getting into.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

Florida farm workers tell how drugs, debt bind them in modern slavery 05/12/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 12, 2012 10:39pm]
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