By Shereen Siewert

A third suspect has been arrested in Florida in an alleged human smuggling and kidnapping plot involving a man living in Marathon County.

Gerardo Hernandez Anselmo, 34, and Felipe Engracia-Gonzalez, 39, both of Kissimmee, Fla., were charged in July with kidnapping a man and holding him for money. The federal indictment alleges that on June 9, 2022, they transported the victim from Wisconsin to Florida. Now, the man’s “employer,” Abasita Engracia-Gonzalez, also known as “Mary,” is also in custody.

As previously reported by Wausau Pilot & Review, the alleged victim in early 2021 came to the U.S. with the assistance of migrant smugglers. Once he was across the border he was taken to Kissimmee, Fla. and put to work in order to pay off a large debt for transporting him across the border, according to court records.

Witnesses told police the alleged victim, who is not named in the criminal complaint, worked in construction with most of his wages withheld by the alleged smugglers – often to the point where he had no money for food. In December, the man became desperate for help and managed to contact a family member in Wisconsin who drove to Florida and picked him up a few blocks from the man’s work site. Then, they drove back to the Abbotsford area where the man found employment.

After the man escaped Florida, investigators say, he began receiving threatening text messages from Abasita Engracia-Gonzalez, who said she would find him and make him pay back his debt. Gonzalez also allegedly contacted the man’s mother in Mexico and told her she “would be getting her son returned in pieces,” police say.

Abastia Engracia-Gonzalez booking photo

Then in June, Abastia’s husband, Felipe Engracia-Gonzalez, drove from Kissimmee to Wisconsin in his Cadillac Escalade, found the man at his workplace in Abbotsford, then forced him into the vehicle and drove back to Florida, police say, with the help of Anselmo. The alleged victim’s phone was found in the median of Hwy. 29.

Relatives contacted police on June 10, one day after the man disappeared. Police say the suspects allowed the man to call his family after arriving back in Florida to tell them he was being held there to work off a debt of more than $11,000. Investigators traced the number to an apartment in Kissimmee, where local police discovered the Escalade and the alleged victim.

Anselmo and Engracia-Gonzalez previously were charged with this offense in a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin on June 23. 

Immigration attorney Gail Seerum told WFTV in Orlando that immigrants are often afraid of turning to the police.

“I’ve heard stories of people working and not getting paid. And then being told, if you report us to the authorities, we’re going to report you to immigration,” Seerum told the TV station.

Seerum told Channel 9 that often immigrants are afraid to say anything, but said it can actually help their legal status.

If an immigrant reports a crime and cooperates with investigators, they can become eligible for what’s called a U-Visa. That can allow them temporary legal status and could help them become a lawful permanent resident, WFTV reports.

“This is an incentive to help immigrants who are the victim of crime to report those crimes as in the story,” Seerum said.