There is a new and softer look these days at the Somis compound of Edwin M. Ives, a flower rancher who gained international notoriety in 1990 when he was charged with enslaving farm workers.
The large metal gates that blocked out the world 2 1/2 years ago have been covered by blue and green pastel fencing and white latticework, and are casually swung open so passersby can see inside.
The Indian workers from rural Mexico who said they were kept as virtual slaves have been replaced by another group of impoverished immigrants--Haitians who say they are treated well.
And as Ives--who has agreed in a plea bargain to pay $1.5 million to 300 ex-workers--prepares for sentencing on seven labor and immigration counts, some Somis neighbors say the ranch is not the same secretive encampment it used to be.
"It's different," said Aurora Quinones, owner of the Somis Market, where Ives' workers shop for food and drinks at the end of the day.
"Now the doors are open and everybody can come out. The guys who come in say everything is OK now," Quinones said last week. "Now everybody is clean and everybody has a uniform."
They cash checks for $180 to $200 each week, the merchant said, evidence that Ives is paying at least the minimum wage to his workers.
Three Haitian workers, placed at the ranch this summer by a Catholic Charities refugee program, said they receive the $4.25 hourly minimum wage and work eight-hour days--half the time that workers once said they toiled at the ranch for $1 an hour.
The Haitian workers, interviewed as they walked to Quinones' market, said the Ives ranch is generally a good place to work.
"Yes, more or less," said Sauveur Etienne, a 19-year-old former concrete worker. Onetime sugar-cane cutter Idovie Dacolena, 26, who wore a crisp, clean uniform, said his only problem is not enough work.
Even that is scheduled to change this weekend, as a temporary work slowdown for structure painting and repair is completed and 16 Haitians again join the Ives payroll, supervisors of the refugee program said.
In fact, Ives' ranch has become a principal port in the storm for Haitians being scattered around the nation as part of an international resettlement plan, said Jerry Gaspard, a Catholic Charities manager in Los Angeles.
About 200 Haitians have been moved to the Los Angeles area this year, and of the 30 to 35 who have found work, nearly half have worked for Ives, Gaspard said.
"I think the gentleman has a good heart," Gaspard said of Ives. "I've been in his environment and he has a good word, a kind word for refugees. Haitians are hard workers and I think he wants to help."
Gaspard said he toured Ives' Somis ranch a month and a half ago and found that worker benefits included free living quarters, "a soccer field with goals, a TV room with cable TV, everything."
Haitian workers are anxious to come to Ives' ranch, Gaspard said.
County investigators say that Ives has continued to improve conditions at his compound, where a major fire erupted in 1987 and resulted in Ives pleading guilty to seven misdemeanor crimes involving building, safety and zoning violations.
And federal immigration officials say they have no evidence that Ives has employed illegal workers since his arrest in April, 1990.
Ives, 55, of Los Angeles pleaded guilty in May to maintaining false records, harboring and transporting illegal immigrants and paying sub-minimum wages. He agreed to pay $1.5 million in back wages, the stiffest fine ever in a U.S. immigration case.
His farming company also admitted to nine crimes including racketeering, the first organized-crime conviction in a federal civil rights case, prosecutors say.
Just when Ives, who faces up to 16 years in prison but could get only probation, will be sentenced is another matter.
Sentencing was delayed in early August because Ives, whose net worth was estimated at $5 million in 1990, could not sell any of his three ranches. A sentencing hearing scheduled to begin tomorrow was delayed last week, and Ives now wants a postponement until December to give him more time to sell his property.
His attorneys say the sale of Ives' 10-acre Upland citrus grove is in the works with the California Department of Transportation because it is in the path of a new freeway. And a Caltrans spokeswoman said the deal should close within 60 days.
The sale price is still being determined, but Ives' attorneys say that Caltrans offered $700,000 in 1984 and that this sale will provide enough money to ensure payment of the promised $1.5 million before sentencing.
"This is not a great time to be trying to liquidate property," lawyer John Crouchley said. "Mr. Ives has no interest in stringing this along. We're anxious to move on this and to get it resolved."