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Cherry Orchard Landlords Present Their Defense in Court

The bench trial of two Champaign County landlords continued Monday morning.

Bernard and Eduardo Ramos run the Cherry Orchard Village apartments, located outside of Rantoul in an unincorporated part of Champaign County. Cherry Orchard has been under scrutiny for the last three and a half years ever since state health inspectors discovered raw sewage seeping into nearby farmland. Champaign County officials say six out of eight apartment buildings on the property are in violation of the local health ordinance.

Acting as his own attorney and speaking through a translator, Eduardo Ramos called one witness during Monday's hearing - his son, Bernard.

Eduardo asked Bernard if it is possible to re-open the affected apartment buildings without clearance from a government agency.

"We have to fix them first before we open them," Bernard replied.

Bernard said he will take responsibility for the property, promising to have the six apartment buildings that are in violation of the county's health ordinance re-opened by this summer. There is typically an uptick in occupancy at the apartment complex during the warmer months due to an influx of migrant workers to the area. A 2007 migrant camp license application for the property reports there are at least 48 family rental units at Cherry Orchard.

Bernard said he and his father shouldn't get blamed for the sewage and septic issue since the Bank of Rantoul owned the property when health inspectors first noticed a problem in 2007.

"We got blamed for things other people did," Ramos said. "If anything was done to the property, we have nothing to do with it."

The property is currently owned by Bernard's sister, Evelyn.

Assistant State's Attorney Christina Papavasiliou says under the law, the Ramoses have a duty to maintain the property, which she says they have neglected to do.

"If you exercise possession or control," Papavasiliou explained. "Even as a landlord or in any capacity, you can be accountable under the ordinance."

Papavasiliou is pushing for an injunction that would prevent people from living in the apartment complex until the sewage problems are fixed. She is asking presiding Judge John Kennedy to fine the Ramoses $500 a day until the sewage and septic systems are fixed, and another $500 for everyday it takes them to vacate remaining tenants.

She says tenants are still living in buildings that are not up to code. Though occupancy at the property is unknown, public health officials estimate at least eight single men continue to live there and have noted several cars parked outside apartment buildings.

During Monday's trial, the Ramoses requested a motion of continuance, saying they needed 14 days to subpoena an official with the Illinois Department of Public Health who works on issuing licenses to house migrant workers. Judge Kennedy rejected the motion, calling the testimony of the official "marginal at best."

Once the request was denied, Eduardo Ramos filed a motion of prejudice against Kennedy.

"I have been a lawyer for many, many years and have not seen this type of verbal violence before," Eduardo said.

Eduardo explained he had studied law in his native Bolivia, but not in the United States.

Another judge, Jeff Ford, was brought in to take up the prejudice claim, and that motion was also denied.

The Ramoses have owned more than 30 properties in Champaign County, and have faced hundreds of code violations. Several of these properties, including Cherry Orchard, have been under foreclosure, according to the Champaign County Recorder's Office.

The Ramoses ignored a request for comment after the trial. In a 2009 interview with CU-CitizenAccess.org, Bernard Ramos said city housing inspectors have targeted him because he is Hispanic and rents to illegal immigrants. He said his financial problems were due to the decline in the economy and unemployment, which affected his tenants' ability to pay rent.

The prosecution rested its case last Wednesday. The trial will resume Friday, April 15 at 2:30 PM.

(Photo courtesy of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District)