Criminal probe opened into death of pregnant farmworker

FRESNO, Calif. — Local investigators are probing whether a labor contractor may be criminally liable for the death of a young, pregnant farmworker who collapsed in a vineyard two weeks ago.

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, was pruning grape vines at a San Joaquin County vineyard in 100-degree heat when she fell to the ground the afternoon of May 14.

Relatives say supervisors recommended that she rest in a hot van and be revived with rubbing alcohol before she was taken to a Lodi medical clinic, nearly two hours after she fell ill. Only after her death did doctors realize she was two months' pregnant.

California State Attorney General Jerry Brown said Thursday an investigator from his office was assisting in the county's probe, along with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

A division official said Jimenez's employer, Merced Farm Labor, had been issued three citations in 2006 for exposing workers to heat stroke, failing to train workers on heat stress prevention and not installing toilets at the work site.

The Atwater company has not paid the $2,250 it owes in fines, said agency spokesman Dean Fryer.

Merced Farm Labor safety officer Elias Armenta did not return repeated calls seeking comment on Thursday, and the company that owns the vineyard could not immediately be reached.

Vasquez Jimenez, a Mexican citizen from a Mixtec indigenous town in the state of Oaxaca, had only worked in the vineyard for three days.

On Wednesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made an unannounced appearance at her funeral at a Catholic church in Lodi.

"Maria's death should have been prevented, and all Californians must do everything in their power to ensure no other worker suffers the same fate," he said in a strongly worded statement demanding that employers follow state heat rules.

California regulations implemented in 2006 require farms and labor contractors to provide workers with water, allow regular breaks in the shade and have an emergency plan in place to help workers suffering from heat exhaustion.

If employers are found to have willfully violated shade laws, they can face fines of up to $25,000, Fryer said.

If companies are found guilty of criminal violations, they could face millions of dollars in penalties and prison sentences, he said.

The coroner has not yet determined what caused Vasquez Jimenez's death, but authorities suspect it was heat-related, Fryer said.

The scant information provided to workers about training and lack of nearby water supplies "immediately raise the notion that this could go into a criminal case," Fryer said.

On Wednesday, Mexico's Foreign Relations Department issued a statement saying the agency had contacted California officials to express concern over the "precarious working conditions for Mexicans employed by this firm."

On Sunday, farmworker advocates plan to join Vasquez Jimenez's uncle, brother and other family members in a march from Lodi to Sacramento and to demand that growers protect workers from heat stroke.

Vasquez Jimenez's fiance Florentino Bautista will be on the pilgrimage, after sending her coffin back to Oaxaca to be received by her mother.

"Not only did Florentino lose Maria, but he also lost a child that neither of them knew she was carrying," United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez said. "We can't be sending out a message to the ag industry that you just get a slap on the hand even if it results in the death of a farmworker."