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Deaf L.A. Peddlers Say They Know N.Y. Sellers

Probe: Many at Los Angeles airport tell of crossing paths with family accused of keeping immigrants in virtual servitude. There have been no reports of such conditions here.

July 25, 1997|HECTOR TOBAR and PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LOS ANGELES — The deaf peddlers at Los Angeles International Airport know all about New York City and the bad jefes who did business there, the "king peddlers" who allegedly kept more than 50 Mexican immigrants in crowded apartments as virtual indentured servants.

Asked about the New York trinket-selling operation of the Paoletti family, one of the Los Angeles peddlers wrote in a reporter's notebook: "No me gusta N.Y." (I don't like New York.)

Both the Paolettis and their alleged victims are well-known among deaf Mexican immigrants in Southern California, a community scattered in pockets from central Los Angeles to suburbs such as Santa Ana but probably numbering in the thousands.

For every one of the reported victims of the alleged New York ring, there are many other deaf immigrants who have come to the Los Angeles area, earning from $20 to $70 a day selling trinkets such as key chains and pencils in airports, malls and restaurants.

The way acquaintances and relatives here tell it, Jose Paoletti Lemus--a deaf man arrested in New York last week along with his wife, mother, sister and a cousin--launched the enterprise in Los Angeles about a decade ago. He relocated to New York in about 1990 with a dozen or so vendors after a series of disputes with other peddlers, according to deaf merchants here.

"They didn't treat people well," said Pablo Rea, a deaf acquaintance of the Paolettis who lives near La Puente.

Among other things, Rea said, Paoletti and several associates were accused of pocketing too much of the profit for themselves.

Federal officials investigating the New York case have said they are exploring the Paolettis' ties in California.

But it remains unclear whether authorities will find a group subjected to similar alleged mistreatment in Los Angeles. Deaf peddlers interviewed here said they knew of no such extreme conditions as those alleged in New York.

Nonetheless, many deaf Mexican families living in Southern California have either worked for, crossed paths with, or are related to the Paoletti family.

Monica Lozano, a 27-year-old resident of Mexico City visiting deaf relatives in Los Angeles, said she had seen Renato Paoletti--Jose's brother and the alleged New York ringleader, now a fugitive--last Saturday at a party in Mexico City.

"In deaf circles," Lozano said, "everyone knows everybody."

Inundated with leads on exploited deaf immigrants from North Carolina to Chicago, the Immigration and Naturalization Service announced Thursday the formation of a National INS Anti-Exploitation Task Force, based in Washington.

The task force will examine the leads and anecdotal information about similar cases of "abuse, coercion and extortion of immigrants" nationwide, said INS Commissioner Doris Meissner.

A dozen or so peddlers interviewed this week said they knew the Paolettis as unscrupulous bosses. Lawyers defending the family in New York have denied any wrongdoing. The fact that no one stepped forward to alert authorities about the alleged abuse in New York until last week may be a measure of the isolation and insular nature of the deaf immigrant community.

In Orange County, suspicions of abuse are nearly impossible to investigate, in part because victims refuse to cooperate out of fear or desperation, said Ed Kelly, director of the Cypress-based Deaf Equal Access Foundation.

"I hear stories, I know there are relationships out there [with the New York ring], but they refuse to reveal their boss to anyone," he said. "It's extremely well hidden."

"They are trying to make a living, and they don't want to do anything to jeopardize that," Kelly said.

In Los Angeles, a city replete with immigrant street vendors of every stripe, the deaf peddlers live in a world apart, a truth illustrated when a reporter not conversant in sign language tried to conduct an interview with eight peddlers at the airport.

Most of the group--all men in their 20s and early 30s--live in suburban Whittier and Santa Ana. They commute to the airport and malls "everywhere" to work, selling small trinkets for $1 each, sharing the proceeds with a boss whom they say they respect. Some seemed barely literate, struggling to spell words, writing in convoluted Spanish syntax.

When the reporter first approached the group with the written message "I am a journalist," one of the deaf peddlers seemed agitated and wrote back "Muy mal" (very bad).

The reporter interpreted this as a sign of fear. But it soon became apparent that the peddlers simply wanted to express their outrage at the reports of abuse emanating from New York.

One peddler brought his hands together to form a roof, alleging that, while working for the Paolettis, he had been forced to give up his earnings in exchange for living quarters.

With each vendor soliciting hundreds of potential customers each day, it is easy to understand how unscrupulous entrepreneurs could enrich themselves even in a world of $1 sales. Authorities charge that the Paolettis demanded virtually all their employees' earnings.

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