Vashon landscaping business owner sentenced to 20 years in human trafficking case

Island Jesus Ruiz-Hernandez was convicted on Jan. 23 and sentenced last week

Islander Jesus Ruiz-Hernandez was sentenced to 20 years in prison on April 30, following his conviction this year over a scheme to bring undocumented immigrants to Vashon Island and exploit their uncertain legal status to exploit them at his business Brothers Landscaping.

Ruiz-Hernandez has appealed his conviction and sentence to the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit, according to court documents.

According to a statement from prosecutors, U.S. District Judge James L. Robart said during sentencing that, after observing Ruiz-Hernandez through the trial, he saw “a complete lack of respect for the truth.”

Ruiz-Hernandez “lived a lie” for years on Vashon, U.S. Attorney Tessa Gorman said in a prepared statement to the media: “His business model was premised on enticing vulnerable persons from Mexico to come to the United States to work for his company – and then exploiting them by forcing them to work for him for little to no money while using their debts and immigration status to keep them tethered to him as his source of cheap labor.”

Prosecutors asked for more than 24 years in prison for Ruiz, noting that the criminal activity lasted more than seven years and likely involved more people than just the seven victims named in charges and at trial.

The defense asked for a sentence in the range of 27 to 57 months, or a little over a year to a little under five years.

A letter to the court requesting clemency from Ruiz-Hernandez’ mother describes Ruiz-Hernandez as a hardworking and humble man who came to the U.S. with the goal of advancing himself and his family. But those who he once called friends “have betrayed and lied about him” out of envy, she wrote, and she maintained that there was more evidence that could exonerate Ruiz-Hernandez beyond what his attorney had presented.

Ruiz-Hernandez will spend three years on supervised release after his release from prison.

Arrest, trial and conviction

Ruiz-Hernandez was arrested and released after an indictment in November 2022, and arrested again on new charges related to human and labor trafficking on March 30, 2023, after a dramatic early-morning law-enforcement raid on his Maury Island home and another nearby property.

Prosecutors argued that even after being indicted in November, he continued underpaying undocumented employees, and following his March arrest, he was determined a safety or flight risk and ordered held in jail while awaiting trial.

Requests by his attorneys — supported by multiple letters of support from his friends and island customers — to let him leave jail and await trial on electronic home monitoring were refused.

In court documents, and testimony and closing arguments at trial, prosecutors portrayed Ruiz-Hernandez as a human trafficker who lured immigrants from his hometown of Vista Hermosa in Mexico by hiring “coyotes,” or human smugglers, to bring them across the border. He would then meet the victims in the U.S. and bring them to Vashon.

Over several years, promising seven undocumented immigrants well-paying jobs on the island, Ruiz-Hernandez instead trapped them in debt by withholding pay, overcharging them for rent and food at properties he owned or leased on the island, and requiring them to pay him back over time for their coyote fees, prosecutors said — often not accurately reducing the debt for those fees for the hours they worked.

Ruiz-Hernandez and some of his family members also kept the victims under their thumb, attorneys argued, by convincing them to relinquish their parental rights or pieces of property to him and his family as collateral. He also disallowed victims from taking other jobs, prosecutors said.

Most disturbingly, prosecutors said, Ruiz-Hernandez sexually assaulted one victim on multiple occasions and would become violent toward her when she told him no. A culture of fear, emotional and physical abuse and isolation kept the victim, who could not speak English, from seeking help. And when she did leave, prosecutors said, Ruiz-Hernandez and his family members harassed her in public on Vashon, pressuring her to return to his control.

At trial, Ruiz-Hernandez defended himself on the witness stand and said his employees were treated fairly.

“They could come and go as they pleased,” he said through the aid of an interpreter.

He wired money to Mexico for reasons including paying hospital bills for family members who became sick, Ruiz-Hernandez said. And he denied ordering others to send transactions for him under their names.

Ruiz-Hernandez’s defense attorney painted a picture of Ruiz-Hernandez as a hardworking and enterprising man, a resident of the island for nearly three decades who sought to help his family and friends thrive in the U.S. by giving them jobs at his business — which also let them send money back to Mexico to support their families.

Ruiz-Hernandez wasn’t the one personally bringing people over the border, the attorney pointed out during closing arguments.

Jurors deliberated less than two full days before convicting Ruiz-Hernandez on Jan. 23 of crimes related to human trafficking, forced labor and money laundering, following weeks of trial and testimony from his employees and from the man himself.

Jurors ultimately convicted Ruiz-Hernandez of 21 charges: two charges of forced labor; three charges of transporting an alien; seven charges of harboring an alien; and three counts of bringing an alien to the U.S. for financial gain. He was also found guilty of one count of money laundering conspiracy; two counts of concealment of money laundering; and three counts of international promotion of money laundering.