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Star Packaging owner to go on trial

---Case has created rift in Whitewater community

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published July 18, 2007, 1:05 p.m.)

Immigrant workers were deported to Mexico, their children left behind.

Families struggle as mothers and fathers, who no longer have the ability to work, await deportation hearings.

The city's police department has doubled public relations efforts to show it's unbiased.

And a packaging company owner starts a scheduled weeklong Monday as he watches his business fold like the boxes his largely Hispanic staff once filled.

All this and more after police and federal immigration agents raided a local business last summer, morphing a college town in northwestern Walworth County into a microcosm of a national issue.

Allen L. Petrie, owner of Star Packaging, faces six counts of conspiracy to commit identity theft for allegedly hiring undocumented Mexican workers who used false or stolen social security numbers. He goes on trial Monday, facing up to 36 years prison and $60,000 in fines.

An Aug. 8, 2006, raid at the company on Milwaukee Street, led to the arrest of 25 Mexican workers by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents and Petrie by Whitewater Police.

Petrie allegedly maintained employment of several Mexicans despite being told repeatedly by now-retired Whitewater investigator Larry Meyer that they were using false or stolen identities and should be terminated.

Petrie's attorney, Stephen Glynn, said the company followed appropriate hiring practices.

"The facts that I believe will come out at trial will show that, No. 1, Petrie did not have knowledge that the state is assuming he had, and No. 2, that he and others associated with the business did what the law required them to do, which is obtain two forms of identification and fill out the I-9 forms and submit them to the government." Glynn said. "After that, the employer's responsibility (to verify identification) ends."

Since the raid, the business, which once had about 100 employees at its peak, has virtually folded. Major accounts were lost and most of the workers were laid off, said business attorney Mark Olm.

But what Petrie did was illegal, Assistant District Attorney Diane Donohoo said.

"Employers cannot knowingly employ people, continue to have them on staff or continue to facilitate their pay when they know that that person is using someone else's Social Security number," she said in an earlier interview.

Petrie was told several times to disassociate with employees who had used false information, but didn't, Donohoo said.

Two of the employees had allegedly been using the Social Security numbers of children, Donohoo said.

Three former Star Packaging employees were later charged with identity theft.

About 15 of the Mexican workers detained in the raid, aging from their 20s to 40s, were deported. About 10 remain in the United States fighting to stay here.

The state is stretching the statute to try and make Petrie's business practices into a crime, Glynn said.

Glynn also wondered why local police focused so much time on the business when there were more serious crimes to investigate.

"They're in way over their head," Glynn said. "I think they're way outside their appropriate jurisdiction. And I don't think I've ever seen a situation in which one law enforcement officer has made it a crusade to go after people of a certain ethic origin. Based on some of the evidence I expect to come out in trial, that's what appears to have happened here."

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