As a Los Angeles high school student in the 1950s, Eddie Isaac impressed classmates as a hustler by hawking flowers from street corners after school.
The son of a neighborhood shopkeeper, Isaac later worked the downtown Los Angeles flower markets, operated a flower shop in West Hollywood and eventually bought a small ranch near San Fernando.
But riches eluded him until 1979, when Isaac--who by then had changed his name to Edwin M. Ives--borrowed heavily to buy two flower ranches in Somis and Moorpark.
He recruited Zapotec and Miztec Indian laborers from the rural mountaintops of southern Mexico, allegedly smuggling them into the country and imprisoning them behind high gates and barbed-wire fences at a 50-acre compound in Somis.
They worked for about $1 an hour. Their heads allegedly were shaved upon arrival and virtually every minute of their 16-hour workday was controlled.
As his workers toiled to harvest and dye ornamental leaves and flowers that Ives sold nationwide, prosecutors say his profits reached $1 million a year. Along the way, they say, Ives turned into a modern-day slave master.
Ives' assets totaled more than $5 million when a federal grand jury indicted him in 1990 in the most far-reaching slavery case ever filed by the United States.
The government says he cheated at least 300 poor and ignorant workers out of $3 million during the 1980s.
Ives, 55, of Los Angeles, agreed March 23 to plead guilty to seven immigration and labor law violations and to pay about $1.5 million in back wages, the stiffest fine ever in a U.S. immigration case. His farming company also will admit to organized-crime activity, the first racketeering conviction in a federal civil rights case, prosecutors say.
In exchange, the government will dismiss the extortion and slavery counts that brought the case international attention. Ives faces up to 18 years in prison, although defense lawyers will ask for probation.
The plea-bargain, though not official until Ives changes his plea at a hearing scheduled for Monday, was a major turning point in a bizarre case whose central figure remains an enigma.
Even those who prosecuted him say the voracious ambition that marked his business activities does not appear to jibe with the ethical values that apparently guided his personal life.
Defense attorneys describe Ives as a hard-working rancher who parlayed a lifetime in the flower business into success, a loner whose solitary nature made others suspicious, and a devout family man whose frequent pilgrimages to Israel reflect the depth of his Orthodox Jewish faith.
Indeed, the case's essential paradox is that Ives could be the simple, honest and charitable man admired by friends in his community and also a rancher so greedy he would callously mistreat hundreds of workers for extra profit.
Ives has lived much of his life in Los Angeles' Fairfax area, graduating from high school, marrying, raising three children and attending a nearby synagogue.
Even as he prospered, Ives assumed few trappings of wealth.
His home is a relatively modest 2,700 square feet. And it is only in the last several years that Ives and his wife, Dolly, bought a condo in Palm Springs, began to drive new cars and sometimes splurged while shopping in Beverly Hills, Palm Springs and New York, prosecutors said.
"They lived a fairly modest life for a long time," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Carol L. Gillam, lead prosecutor in the case.
Ives' diligence was noted even in high school.
"His dad had a little neighborhood dry-goods store," recalled high school chum Larry Navis. "Eddie would sell flowers on a corner. He was a hard-working, good, honest guy."
"He was a hustler, a street-smart kid," dentist Burt Schnierow said of his former classmate. "There were a lot of them in Fairfax in those days. We were all middle-class Jewish kids trying to work our way up, and a lot of us did."
Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen of Congregation Shaarei Tefila said before the plea-bargain that he had no doubt that Ives, a friend for 14 years, was innocent.
"It's inconceivable that this kind, decent man would have been involved in these outrageous, immoral acts," Cohen said. "They're so outlandish, they have to be false. This is a good person. . . . That's why in the community there is tremendous support for him."
Ives can be judged not only by his character but by that of his children, the youngest of whom is a teen-ager, Cohen said.
"They run youth groups, they are the first people to care for the poor or to visit the sick in hospitals," the rabbi said.
Ives himself--sometimes accompanied by his wife and children in court and dapper in dark suits and a British racing cap--has refused to be interviewed except for quick comments at hearings when he has said he has been treated unfairly by the government and the news media.