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Police say business owner had been warned

Facing identity theft charges

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published August 25, 2006, 1:08 p.m.)

The owner of a Whitewater business raided by local police and federal immigration officials encouraged his workers to use fake names and Social Security numbers, according to court documents.

The raid on Star Packaging is not expected to set a pattern, authorities said.

"I know it is obviously a controversial issue in terms of immigration, but this is much more than that," ex-Whitewater Police Chief James Coan said.

"There is no concerted effort on the part of the Whitewater Police Department to target illegal immigrants," he added.

Police started an investigation of Star Packaging, 960 E. Milwaukee St., and its owner, 47-year-old Allen Petrie, after informants told investigators that illegal immigrants worked there.

A criminal complaint and search warrant affidavit accuse Petrie of knowingly hiring Hispanic workers who were using false identities, despite warnings from police to stop the practice.

The investigation and subsequent raid were a multijurisdictional effort that included local police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, sheriff's deputies and officials from the Social Security Administration, Coan said.

Petrie perpetrated identity theft crimes by allegedly telling workers they could use fake names and Social Security numbers, according to the complaint.

The complaint says Petrie once told a Mexican employee that he could no longer work under the alias he was using. The employee filled out a new application with a different name and Social Security number and continued working, the complaint says.

One employee allegedly had money deducted from his paycheck because the stolen Social Security number that he was using required child support payments be taken from it, according to the affidavit. Petrie allegedly told the employee to use a different name and number, the affidavit reads.

Another employee left the business after police were there in 2005 investigating identity theft. The employee returned to work using a different name and Social Security number, according to the affidavit.

The investigation revealed that at least 22 employees had false or stolen identities.

"People should keep in mind that this was not a random thing," Coan said. "We were not going into a McDonald's looking for illegal immigrants. It revolves around the business practices of this company."

Coan did not believe that other similar investigations were active in Whitewater. Acting Police Chief Lt. Lisa Otterbacher did not return a phone call seeking comment. ICE officials said the arrests at Star Packaging were "just the tip of the iceberg."

Petrie faces one charge of conspiracy to commit identity theft for financial gain, a felony punishable by six years in prison and fines up to $10,000 if convicted. He has an initial court appearance Tuesday.

Defense attorney Frank Lettenberger said earlier that Petrie followed all employment practices as required by law. He did not have an obligation to check the validity of Social Security numbers if employees presented the proper forms of identification, he said.

Firing Hispanic employees because their Social Security numbers didn't match their name would have subjected the business to anti-discrimination lawsuits or labor law sanctions, Lettenberger said.

"I feel so bad for a guy like Allen Petrie," Lettenberger said. "He does everything he is supposed to do and is a good, hard-working, all-American guy. He and his wife are running a factory and doing everything they were supposed to do."

Coan, who recently took a job as police chief in Hudson, said the Whitewater Police Department understands the sensitivity of the issue. However, authorities should not have to apologize for the arrest of more than two dozen people, he said.

Police believe what those employees were doing was illegal, he added.

"I think that's why we were invited in," said John Neinhardt, ICE supervisory special agent from the Milwaukee office. "The local agency was in their investigation of identity theft, and we began to come to the conclusion that many of these individuals were illegal through the Social Security Administration."

The immigrants were not the main targets, Neinhardt said. But when employees were found using fake or stolen identities, it became more apparent they were not U.S. citizens.

"A victim is an individual who has their identity stolen. This in no way was a victimless crime," Neinhardt said.

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