DETROIT — A suburban Detroit restaurant owner was sentenced to nine months in prison Thursday for illegally employing five Mexican immigrants who died while failing to escape the basement during a fire at his home.

Federal prosecutors had sought a seven-year sentence for Roger Tam and his wife, arguing that they had created a dangerous setting for the young men by allowing the five to live in the basement without enough smoke detectors and with just a single stairway exit to the first floor.

But U.S. District Judge Marianne Battani said the couple didn’t recklessly create a “substantial risk of death,” a key finding that kept the sentencing guidelines to a year or less.

“These were not squalid quarters,” Battani said. “If it had not been for the fire, these would have been excellent quarters. … I know you feel terrible, truly terrible for what happened to these young men.”

The victims, ages 16 to 23, were in the U.S. illegally and working at Tam’s restaurant, Kim’s Garden. They died in 2016 in a basement fire that was linked to careless smoking. Autopsies showed three of the five had been drinking heavily. Tam and Ada Mei Lei weren’t home at the time.

“I’m deeply heartbroken since this horrific accident,” said Tam, 57, a native of Hong Kong. “We loved them very much and they loved us, too.”

Lei was so distraught about the deaths that she tried to kill herself, defense attorney Art Weiss said.

“I’m extremely sad and blame myself. I pray for them every night,” Lei, 50, told the judge.

While denying responsibility for the deaths, Tam and Lei had pleaded guilty to harboring the immigrants. The men were each paid $2,000 a month to work 60 hours a week in the restaurant. They lived for free in Tam’s home in Novi, which was sold last summer for $300,000.

“This case is about greed. This case is about taking shortcuts,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim McDonald said.

He said Tam had been using illegal labor for years and didn’t know the full names of the five victims. Lei was sentenced to a year of supervised release, which is similar to probation.

The restaurant lost customers due to publicity about the deaths and closed a year later.


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