Attorney: Couple accused of harboring Indian nationals were trying to help

jwarren@herald-leader.comNovember 21, 2013 

Amrutlal Patel, left, and Dakshaben Patel.

A couple accused of making undocumented Indian nationals work for low pay in four Lexington Subway restaurants could face up to 10 years in prison, if convicted, for each worker, a federal judge said Thursday. But an attorney said the couple might have been merely trying to help the people working for them.

Punishment for the couple potentially also could include fines and deportation, according to U.S. District Judge Robert Wier. The severity of the sentence would depend mostly on whether federal prosecutors can prove that Amrutlal Patel and his wife, Dakshaben, acted to financially benefit themselves.

No pleas were entered during the Patels' initial appearance before Wier in Lexington on Thursday afternoon.

But Wier set a hearing for Monday on whether the Patels, who have been in the Fayette County Detention Center since Tuesday, should remain in custody. The defense has until Tuesday to request a formal preliminary hearing.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Hydee Hawkins and David Marye urged Wier to keep the Patels incarcerated, citing a risk that they might flee the country if freed. Marye noted that the Patels had received thousands of dollars from their restaurant operations in recent months.

The Patels are charged in separate federal complaints with "knowingly and willfully" harboring and concealing undocumented Indian nationals, who worked in the couple's four Lexington Subway outlets. A sworn affadavit filed in the case alleges that the Indian nationals worked long hours for as little as $4 to $5 per hour.

One illegal worker allegedly told a manager he had been denied food and beaten, according to the affadavit.

But an attorney who is representing Dakshaben Patel suggested Thursday that benevolence might have led to the charges against his client and her husband.

"We really haven't had a chance yet to delve into the content of the complaint," attorney Mark Wohlander said in an interview. "But it's my sense that if they did anything wrong, which at this point we're not acknowledging, it was simply out of a cultural response to people who were in need."

Wohlander also argued that some claims in the government's affidavit are factually incorrect, including descriptions of a "hidden room" at the Patels' Lexington home on Ellerslie Park Boulevard, where some employes allegedly were kept.

"I've been out there. It's not a secret room; it's nothing more than a storage room ... in the basement with no lock on it," Wohlander said.

Attorney Mike Murphy is representing Amrutlal Patel. Both Murphy and Wohlander sent other attorneys to stand in for them at Thursday's hearing because they had to be in court elsewhere.

Wier spent most of the hearing explaining court procedures to the Patels and the charges against them. An interpreter was in the courtroom to help the couple understand.

The Patels' four Subway stores — at 1202 Versailles Road, 630 East Main Street, 360 Southland Drive, and inside a Wal-Mart at 500 West New Circle Road — remained closed Thursday.

Jim Warren (859) 231-3255.

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