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Thatched Cottage ex-manager ordered detained in forced labor case

Thatched Cottage in Centerport on Dec. 13, 2016.

Thatched Cottage in Centerport on Dec. 13, 2016. Credit: Daniel Brennan

A federal judge ordered a second man detained in a federal anti-slavery and visa fraud case that alleges the former owner and manager of the Thatched Cottage catering hall in Centerport recruited and mistreated workers from the Philippines.

Roberto Villanueva, 60, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Eastern District of U.S. District Court to six counts, including forced labor, fraud in foreign labor contracting, visa fraud and conspiracies to commit forced labor.

He is the former manager of the Thatched Cottage, which has been closed since 2014, when Huntington officials condemned the property on the waterfront along State Route 25A.

U.S. Magistrate Anne Y. Shields ordered Villanueva detained until a Dec. 19 hearing in the Central Islip court. He is a citizen of the Republic of the Philippines and lived in Glen Head, according to court documents.

Former Thatched Cottage owner Ralph Colamussi, 61, who was indicted on Monday with Villanueva, was arraigned Monday, pleaded not guilty and also ordered detained.

Colamussi owned the facility for 26 years before filing for bankruptcy protection in 2014.

“From start to finish, [the] defendants’ scheme violated visa laws, labor laws, anti-slavery laws and consistently mistreated the Filipino nationals,” prosecutors said in court documents.

According to the indictment, Colamussi and Villanueva recruited potential employees in the Philippines between 2008 and 2013 with “false promises of jobs with overtime pay,” and then compelled the employees to pay money back to them to qualify for visa interviews.

Prosecutors said Tuesday the evidence is “overwhelming” and consists of a “wealth of documents” that were signed by Villanueva and Colamussi or used by them to get Philippine nationals to come to the United States and fraudulently obtain work visas. Prosecutors also said in court in Central Islip they had a dozen witnesses prepared to testify.

Edward P. Jenks, who represents Villanueva, said Monday, “Many of the Filipinos who were so-called abused will come and testify on his [Villanueva’s] behalf. Only time will tell.” The public defender representing Colamussi had no comment on the case.

The indictment details the employees’ experience: They worked for pay lower than promised, went without overtime compensation and were required to do chores outside the scope of their jobs — including caring for Colamussi’s relatives and repairing the adjacent Jellyfish Restaurant, also owned by Colamussi.

Their living conditions, according to the indictment, consisted of mattresses lined up in the basement of Colamussi’s East Northport home. Workers were required to return to the basement immediately after work.

If the employees complained, left Colamussi’s home or made contact outside of their work, Colamussi and Villanueva threatened to report them to immigration authorities, hurt them physically and threatened the safety of their families in the Philippines, according to court documents.

Court documents outlined one allegation in which Colamussi asked an employee to help him flood and then burn down the Thatched Cottage. When the worker refused, Colamussi allegedly threatened the worker with a knife, later calling and threatening to kill the worker.

“These individuals allegedly committed visa fraud while forcing people to work in their catering hall under horrible conditions, in what seemed to be an inescapable situation,” Angel Melendez, special agent-in-charge, Homeland Security Investigations, said in a statement.

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