Updated: September 19, 2019 06:41 PM
KSTP 5 Eyewitness News, reporter Ryan Raiche
A man accused of trafficking undocumented construction workers and stealing their wages was back on the job site of a major Twin Cities developer this week — less than two months before he stands trial in one of the most high profile criminal cases involving labor trafficking in Minnesota.
Ricardo Batres is currently out on bond and is scheduled to go to trial in November on felony charges for trafficking, insurance fraud and theft by swindle. Investigators say he lured workers to construction sites across the metro area, including a site being developed by Reuter Walton – a 40-year-old company that develops properties across the Twin Cities.
Batres then docked the workers’ pay, blocked medical treatment for those hurt on the job, and threatened to report them to immigration, according to the criminal complaint.
After Batres’ arrest last year, Reuter Walton denied having any knowledge of the allegations. They were never implicated as part of the investigation and blamed a sub-contractor for hiring him. The company recently announced steps designed to verify that sub-contractors were adhering to all labor laws.
Yet, 5 INVESTIGATES found Batres on a Reuter Walton construction site in Richfield on Monday. Batres, wearing a hard hat and reflective vest, is seen on video walking in and out of the Reuter Walton trailer and making calls while leaning on a Reuter Walton work truck. Photos obtained from the local carpenters’ union also show him on the job site over the course of several days interacting with other workers.
From his home in Crystal, Batres referred all questions to his attorney, Fred Bruno, who did not return calls or email for comment.
“I was appalled. I’m frustrated. I’m embarrassed,” said Woodrow Piner, a representative of the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. “Most general contractors know who is walking around their job sites.”
5 INVESTIGATES showed pictures of Batres on the Reuter Walton site to the company’s co-owner earlier this week. Nick Walton, coincidently, had just finished a presentation at a Roseville City Council meeting in which he detailed steps the company has taken to address labor trafficking.
“There’s no way that Batres is on one of our projects,” he said after being shown one of the pictures. “I don’t think that’s possible … and I feel very firmly about it.”
However, hours later, Troy Wench, President and Chief Manager of Reuter Walton, confirmed in an email to 5 INVESTIGATES that Batres had, in fact, been working on their site.
Wench said the company “does not have any relationship with Mr. Batres.”
He added that sub-contractor Mina Construction, who has since been fired, brought Batres onto the job site and that Reuter Walton employees were unaware of his presence because he was working under an alias. A representative for Mina Construction declined to comment.
Wench says Reuter Walton employees, who had not previously worked with Batres, had “no reason to suspect he was a fraud … and did not recognize his face.”
Piner, a member of the carpenters’ union, questioned how Batres slipped through un-recognized given the widespread media coverage of the labor trafficking investigation that included Batres’ mug shot being published by multiple outlets.
“It’s a face everyone knows in the construction industry around here,” he said. “How couldn’t you know that face or that name coming into the trailer if you had been questioned about it publicly before?”
After Batres was charged last year, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman warned companies like Reuter Walton that they need to know who is working on their job sites.
Madeline Lohman with The Advocates for Human Rights said the Batres case is “a wake-up call” for such developers.
“I think there is a certain level of responsibility that you have to have when you are employing subcontractors because traffickers take advantage of a lack of oversight to operate,” she said.
Wench, president of Reuter Walton, said the company alerted the County Attorney’s office after learning Batres had accessed their site using an alias.
Freeman’s office declined to comment, but the new details may come up at a pretrial hearing that had already been scheduled for Friday morning.