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3 on Trial in Scam Aimed at Latinos

August 09, 2001|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At least six Ventura County families were duped into buying costly and unnecessary drinking water treatment systems by aggressive salespeople who are now on trial in connection with the alleged scam, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Two employees and the owner of the now-defunct Everclear Water Systems of Burbank are charged with 29 felony and misdemeanor counts of conspiracy and grand theft by false pretenses.

Authorities say the Spanish-speaking salespeople went door to door in Piru and other heavily Latino parts of Ventura County, telling families that drinking tap water posed hazards to their health. They coaxed them into signing contracts for water treatment systems costing $4,000 to $6,000, when similar systems go for less than half that much in retail stores, officials said.

Everclear is part of a larger investigation by consumer protection agencies that involves a number of companies and thousands of Latino families throughout Southern California. The company is being prosecuted in Ventura, San Bernardino and Stanislaus counties and is named in a civil lawsuit filed by the state attorney general's office, Ventura County Deputy Dist. Atty. Mitchell F. Disney said.

Water officials say that many immigrants assume all tap water is unsafe, especially if they come from countries with poor water quality.

"They were doing this to a particularly vulnerable group of people," Disney said Wednesday during his opening statements in the nonjury trial. "It's not just morally repugnant, it's criminal."

Although Ventura County's case focuses on six Piru families, investigators who searched the company's Burbank offices found customer files for 49 families in Oxnard, Moorpark, Fillmore, Santa Paula and Thousand Oaks, Disney said.

The three defense attorneys in the case did not deliver opening statements Wednesday. Attorneys representing former Everclear salespeople Juan Castaneda Abanto and Laura Ortega Saezs declined to comment on the case.

Attorney Victor Salas, who is representing company owner Aurora Elizabeth Vergara, said outside the courtroom that his client maintains she had nothing to do with the sales presentations.

Authorities began investigating Everclear after receiving several consumer complaints, Disney said. Arrest warrants for the three employees were issued last spring.

Disney summarized the transcripts of a 1999 undercover sting operation in Victorville, in which Lydia Patron, an investigator with the state contractors board, posed as a homeowner.

According to Disney, Abanto and Ortega told the undercover investigator that tap water was being recycled throughout the entire city of Victorville, including hospitals and mortuaries, before it reached her faucet.

The defendants promised that a new water filter would fix those problems, said they had official affiliation with the city and told Patron the unit would be installed the next day, Disney said.

State law prohibits water filtration systems from being installed before a mandatory three-day period in which a customer can rescind a contract, he said.

Testimony is scheduled to continue at 9 a.m. today before Superior Court Judge Charles McGrath.

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