Jewel Goodman eases back into his porch chair and breaks the filter off a peach-flavored Clipper cigar. He rolls it absentmindedly in his fingers and closes his eyes to smell the breeze tattle on an incoming storm. In his 57 years, he's seen enough hard days to know not to rush an easy one.
For most of his life he has toiled long days in hot fields picking cabbage, potatoes and tobacco. Eight of those years were spent on a farm in Hastings, south of St. Augustine. In 2007, Ronald Evans was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison after holding Goodman and other farm workers "perpetually indebted" in what the U.S. Department of Justice called "a form of servitude morally and legally reprehensible."
Goodman is one of more than 1,000 slaves who have gained freedom in Florida since 1997.
Goodman lights his cigar, takes a slow draw, leans back and remembers.
"I had to scrap with the devil for my living. And by the devil, I mean contractors," he says. "All the camps I been in, some of them was good and some of them wasn't, but Evans . . . that was slavery time. No playing around."
It started one day in the early '90s, when a white van stopped him in front of the Fruit Stand grocery store in Hastings and asked if he needed work. He did. But as soon as he met Evans he knew he had found trouble. Evans was mean in a way that made Goodman feel suddenly aware of how far out of town they were. There was no phone. Chain link and barbed wired surrounded the property. The crew leaders looked hardened, "like they just come out of prison." The field workers called them henchmen.
One of them gave him a pair of bloodstained work boots.
"He said 'These belong to the last guy who ran. If I catch you trying to get down that road, you're going to answer to me too.' "
Eventually, Goodman ran anyway.
"I went through the ditch in the back of the camp. As soon as I got down the road I saw some lights behind my back. It was a white van. One of the henchmen grabbed me by the back of the neck, threw me in. That's how they'd do you. You couldn't go down that road."
He never saw any money for his work. Rent was deducted from his wages and workers were only given credit at the company store in an age-old scam that left them immediately and perpetually in debt. Alcohol and crack cocaine were available on credit as well, feeding addictions and deepening obligations. Goodman was a drinker, and his debt piled up.
Occasionally he'd work up the courage to make a run for it, and one night it worked. From experience he knew to leave at 3 a.m., to leave his shoes behind to buy extra time, to get right through the drainage ditch, into the woods. He knew to stay still when the white van headlights scanned from the road, to move only after they passed. By 5 a.m. he made it into town and took shelter with another contractor, whom everyone called Jitterbug.
The next day Evans found him at the new camp, but Jitterbug wouldn't let him come in. From the road, Evans promised he would get Goodman back eventually, and said it would be a sorry day for him when he did. But now Evans is in prison, and Goodman is smoking peachy cigars on the porch as free man.
"All that money you took from me. Let's see how much of that money you can spend where you are now," Goodman says of Evans. But all is not equal. Never will be.
"Thing is, it's real hard for me to trust anybody now. I just don't trust nobody no more."
Times photojournalist John Pendygraft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8247. Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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REVISITING RECENT CASES
Since 1997, more than 1,000 agricultural workers have been freed from forced labor and slavery in Florida. Below are the most recent cases investigated by the Department of Justice:
IN 1997, Miguel Flores and Sebastian Gomez were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery, extortion and firearms charges. Flores and Gomez had a workforce of more than 400 in Florida and South Carolina.
IN 1999, Abel Cuello was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison on slavery charges for holding more than 30 tomato pickers against their will in Immokalee.
IN 2001, Jose Tecum was sentenced to 9 years in federal prison on slavery and kidnapping charges for forcing a young woman to work against her will both in his home and in the tomato fields around Immokalee.
IN 2001, Michael Lee was sentenced to 4 years in federal prison and 3 years supervised release on a slavery conspiracy charge after pleading guilty to using crack cocaine, threats and violence to enslave his workers.
IN 2004, Ramiro and Juan Ramos were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery and firearms charges. Their case involved a workforce of more than 700 farmworkers in Florida and North Carolina.
IN 2007, Ronald Evans was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison on drug conspiracy, financial restructuring and witness tampering charges for recruiting U.S. citizens from homeless shelters with promises of good jobs and housing. Evans deducted rent, food, crack cocaine and alcohol from workers' pay, holding them perpetually in debt.
Sources: U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2006-2009; Like Machines in the Fields: Workers Without Rights in American Agriculture, Oxfam America, March 2004; and Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers
To see an interview with Jewel Goodman, visit video.tampabay.com.