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Criminal case, assets seizure halt work on restaurant

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The shell of a building that was supposed to be a new Greenwood restaurant was started but not finished, and the reason why isn’t what you might expect.

The proposed El Rodeo Mexican restaurant in Greenwood might never be completed because of an ongoing criminal investigation and the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office seizing about $2 million from restaurants, the restaurant chain’s attorney said.

Construction of new restaurants, including locations in Greenwood and Greenfield, has stopped because the business doesn’t have the money to pay contractors, and some builders are suing the company for breaking contracts, attorney Richard Kiefer said.

Some of the restaurants have closed or are near closing because they don’t have the funds to operate, he said. The restaurant on Smith Valley Road in Greenwood is still open.

The company, which operates about 40 Mexican restaurants in Indiana, is struggling after the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office seized nearly $2 million in cash, along with vehicles and jewelry.

That seizure has made it difficult for several of the restaurants to operate and has made it so the company can’t pay contractors to build restaurants that were under construction, Kiefer said.

He doesn’t know when the restaurants will be able to get all the money and property back, although a judge this week ordered that nearly $1 million be returned to the company.

El Rodeo owners were able to prove that nearly $1 million taken from an under-construction Greenfield restaurant was attained legally, so on Thursday a judge ordered that the money be returned, Kiefer said. That money was from insurance payments for rebuilding the restaurant, which burned to the ground in 2012, he said.

What will happen with the planned Greenwood location, near County Line Road and Emerson Avenue, is unknown.

No charges have been filed in what the prosecutor’s office has described as a theft and money laundering case. And Kiefer doesn’t have access to the county’s sealed affidavits allowing the seizure of the money, so he can’t argue against their accusations, which haven’t been backed by evidence, he said.

Until he can prove the money and property were gotten legally, Kiefer can’t get the assets back for his clients. That means construction of new locations, such as the one in Greenwood, is at a standstill.

“It’s kind of hard to pay the contractor when there aren’t any funds,” Kiefer said.

The issues began in November, when the Indiana State Police, Marion County Sheriff’s Office and other police agencies raided restaurants across the state.

A spokesman from the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office confirmed that the raids were part of a grand jury investigation, but officials haven’t said what police were investigating.

The prosecutor’s office ordered the seizure of vehicles, jewelry and foreign cash in November, according to documents from the county prosecutor’s office. Owners’ homes also have been forfeited, which means they can’t be sold or mortgaged and, if the prosecutor’s office wins the case, can be sold and that money also taken.

Since then, the prosecutor’s office has told Kiefer that an investigation into whether the restaurants were involved in tax theft and money laundering is ongoing. Businesses haven’t been ordered to close.

Seizing the money, vehicles and other items was related to a grand jury investigation, but a judge hasn’t ordered construction of new restaurants to stop, Marion County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman A.J. Deer said. Charges haven’t been filed because the investigation is ongoing, he said.

The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office said that the restaurant owners were involved in theft and hiding illegally gotten money, according to documents from the county. But the prosecutor’s office hasn’t filed charges or shown evidence that the restaurant owners were doing anything illegal, Kiefer said.

“I know they think they’ve got (evidence). I’m at a loss as to what it is,” he said. “There’s really no way to defend themselves right now, which is really unfair.”

His clients say they’ve done nothing wrong, but the attention has given them a bad reputation and hurt their businesses, he said. Up to 60 restaurants are affected, including El Jaripeo restaurants, which belong to the El Rodeo owners, he said.

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