Prosecution Rests Case Against Cherry Orchard Landlords
(With reporting from CU-CitizenAccess reporter Pam Dempsey)
The prosecution rested its case Wednesday against the landlords of the Cherry Orchard Village apartments, located outside of Rantoul.
Bernard and Eduardo Ramos appeared in Champaign County Court for a bench trial. They are accused of failing to connect sewer and septic systems for six out of eight apartment buildings on the Cherry Orchard property.
Though occupancy at the property is unknown, public health officials estimated at least eight single men continue to live there and have noted several cars parked outside apartment buildings.
Occupancy at the complex typically increases in the warmer months due to an influx of migrant workers to the area. The complex has at least 48 family rental units, according to a 2007 migrant camp license application for the property.
The Ramoses are still not legally barred from renting the place out.
This is an ongoing concern of health officials, who helped relocate about a dozen tenants earlier this year after the Ramoses cut power and water to the property for about three weeks in December.
"It was a nightmare to get those families into apartments and there was just about every agency in town working on this," Pryde said. "If (Ramos) brings in a bunch more people up here and rents them and the judge throws them out then we have a bigger problem and fewer apartments out there to put people into.
"In reality unless the law and the ordinances give us any authority to do anything, there's really only so much you can do. We don't have authority to go in and shut them down," Pryde said.
Bernard Ramos declined comment for this story. Bernard and Eduardo have made previous agreements during the past year to vacate the property and legally repair the sewer system, but they have yet to follow through, public health officials said.
"That's what upsets me the most is we know there are problems ... we know there's issues with safety up there for people and there's nothing we can do about it," Pryde said.
Pryde said she helped one former tenant, Hermelinda Cruz, 51, find a new place to live. Cruz lived at Cherry Orchard for nearly two years after she and her husband separated.
Cruz and her family moved to Rantoul in 2003 from Rio Grande, Texas, in search of better jobs and better education.
For the past eight years, Cruz worked for agricultural companies like Syngenta and Pioneer between April and December.
After she and her husband separated, Cruz and her four children needed a place to live, and she found Cherry Orchard.
"At first I thought it was good because it was cheap and I wasn't working," Cruz said, speaking through her 14-year-old daughter, who interpreted for this interview.
Cruz said Bernard Ramos would allow her to pay the monthly $500 rent week by week.
He even lent her extra beds to use.
"When we first went to Cherry Orchard, it was tough," Cruz said. I had "no cars, no way to move. I had to start from the bottom up. I do appreciate Bernard because he let us borrow beds, stove (and) refrigerator. When I first moved to Cherry Orchard, I didn't have anything like that."
But they soon discovered mold on the walls and water dripping in from the ceiling, so Ramos moved them to another unit, which didn't prove to be much better.
The sewer would often back up into her shower, Cruz said, sometimes up to three days.
When the migrant workers would move in during the summer, Ramos would shut off the water for 12 hours at a time on a weekly basis, she said.
Moving out wasn't an option for Cruz because she had no place to go that would allow her to pay the rent by the week.
It wasn't until she received assistance from the health department, that Cruz and her family were able to move.
In February, Cruz and her four children found a three-bedroom apartment for $450 a month.
"I like it here because you don't see no cockroaches on the wall or hear the mice at nighttime," Cruz said.
Bernard Ramos and his family owned more than 30 properties in Champaign County; however, several are now or have been under foreclosure during the past few years - with at least seven sold in sheriff's auctions since 2008, according to an analysis of Champaign County Recorder's Office documents.
Their sole property near Rantoul, Cherry Orchard Apartments, is also currently under foreclosure, according to documents on file with the Champaign County Recorder's Office.
The father-son landlord team has also faced hundreds of code violations from the City of Champaign on rental property they own that have also garnered repeated condemnations.
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.
"One of the biggest problems is I grew so big so fast, now I want to get smaller," Bernard Ramos said in 2009.
In court documents, Ramos cited 13 apartment units that were condemned under the management of one bank and alleged that the bank's property manager was intentionally "sabotaging" his properties so the agent could buy them at a lower price.
"My goal is to get my properties back and don't make the same mistakes as before," Ramos said in a 2009 interview.
Last year, Champaign County amended its nuisance property ordinances based on conditions at Cherry Orchard.
Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said his department forwarded its complaint to the Champaign County State's Attorney's Office for prosecution under the amended ordinances after the Ramoses failed to bring the property up to the new county codes.
Once filed, it will bring the number of county court cases against Cherry Orchard up to two.
"The nuisance ordinance was amended in the past year to include several more specific kinds of dangerous structures," Hall said. "Several of those new definitions of dangerous structures exist or at least we have evidence they exist at the Cherry Orchard apartments."
Hall said two notices have been sent to Bernard Ramos detailing the violations under the amended nuisance ordinances, which carry a fine between $100 and $500 per day.
"This case is a long way from being resolved and those buildings are a long way from being repaired," Hall said.
"I believe, in total, both cases can indicate that these buildings are a real safety hazard but I don't know how that's going to be addressed in court," he said.
"Had this have happened in Champaign or Urbana, the city can go in and take care of it. There's codes that they work under and they could take care of it. Had it had happened in Rantoul, they could have gone in and taken care of it, but because it was in an unincorporated part of the county, no one really had authority over it except for Champaign County Zoning and Planning, and they didn't have any ordinance," Pryde said.
With the prosecution resting its case, Pryde says Bernard will present his defense Monday at 9 AM at the Champaign County Courthouse.
(Photo by A. H. Gorton of CU-CitizenAccess)
A Timeline of Key Events at Cherry Orchard:
Photos from the Cherry Orchard Village Apartments: