It started with a murder, a mushroom farm and, eventually, a mole.
Not hallucinogenic mushrooms, but rather popular staples on grocery shelves: white buttons, portobellos and criminis.
The Independence farm is under federal investigation, as a special agent has accused two employees of “harboring, encouraging to remain and unlawfully employing illegal aliens,” according to an affidavit of probable cause filed into court records on Oct. 8.
The case began Dec. 13, 2012. That day a man was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head in a trailer park just north of Tickfaw, wrote Tangipahoa Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Dawn Panepinto in an email. The case is still under investigation, and she declined to release specific information but did note the victim and a potential suspect worked at Red Hill Mushroom Farm.
In January 2013, Tangipahoa Parish deputies visited the farm to investigate the suspect and found the suspect was an undocumented immigrant, states the affidavit submitted by Special Agent John Chakwin III of the Department of Homeland Security.
A few months later, federal agents inspected the farm, collected documents and met with a representative from Basciani Foods Inc., Red Hill’s parent company.
In June 2013, agents served the company with a notice identifying 17 workers who were “not authorized to work in the United States,” saying essentially that they believed those employees were using false papers.
The following month, Michael Basciani, the company’s co-owner, told a federal agent the employees would have to be fired.
Also in July, investigators met with an unnamed informant who did not have the proper documents to work in this country but still tried to get a job at the farm. The informant told the feds he or she informed one of the farm supervisors about the lack of paperwork. “(The informant) stated that the supervisor told him/her to come back in a few weeks for a job and to obtain fake documents for employment,” the affidavit states.
Later in July, agents and parish deputies visited the farm under the ruse of following up on the homicide investigation. They found employees who were “expected to be terminated,” according to the affidavit.
However, during the course of the investigation, they found records indicating that the employees had kept receiving paychecks, even after they were supposed to be fired.
Meanwhile, a secretary told investigators she was instructed to pay employees who were not on the payroll. Law enforcement also checked employees’ Social Security numbers and found that one worker was using a dead person’s number, four numbers were not found in Social Security records and three were working under a different name than the one that appeared in records.
Using handwriting analysis and information from the informant, agents also believe at least one employee was fired and rehired under a different name.
In August 2014, Homeland Security agents gave their informant fake ID cards and sent the source to the mushroom farm wearing a wire. The informant met with John “Little Man” Santangelo III and a man known as Ober “Bibi” Farfan, Chakwin wrote. Their precise roles at the farm are not clear in the affidavit, but both were alleged to have participated in the hiring process. In a 2013 article in The Advocate about the farm, Santangelo was described as the son of the farm’s founders and a manager.
When Farfan looked at the documents provided by the informant, he “joked that the person on the identification card even looked like (the source) before informing ‘Little Man’ that the identification was a ‘green card,’” the affidavit states.
When the source appeared in September 2014 to make copies of the ID for company records, the secretary noticed the documents were expired, but Santangelo told her they were “acceptable.”
The informant worked at the farm for two days and was paid $134.83 on Sept. 16, according to Chakwin.
The affidavit accuses Santangelo and Farfan of violating a federal law by “harboring, encouraging to remain, and unlawfully employing illegal aliens.”
A woman who answered the phone at Red Hill Mushroom Farm on Monday morning said no one was available to speak about the case. When called later in the day, no one answered or returned a request for comment.
Santangelo’s attorney Ian Atkinson declined to comment on the case as well.
A man who answered the phone at Basciani Foods said he was not aware of the case before abruptly hanging up.
A booking deputy at the Tangipahoa Parish Jail said a “Johnnie Santangelo Jr.,” born in 1985, had been booked on a federal charge Oct. 15, but was transferred to a different facility by federal marshals the following day. The 2013 Advocate article interviewed Johnnie “Little Man” Santangelo, who was 27 at the time.
According to federal court documents, Santangelo’s bail was set at $10,000, and he bonded out Oct. 16. That day, the court also unsealed the affidavit that had been filed Oct. 8. Santangelo is scheduled to appear in court again Oct. 30 for a preliminary hearing, but has not been charged.
The booking deputy had no record of Ober Farfan. Federal agents believe the name may be an alias, and the name “Bibi Bravo” appears in some court records related to the case.
When reached for comment on Monday, the Department of Homeland Security was unable to provide information on Farfan’s status, and there were no records of that name in court documents available online.
In the 2013 story, members of the Santangelo family said they had bought the 50-acre tract of land in 2005.
In 2013, the farm was producing 30,000 mushrooms a week to sell from Texas to Florida. Santangelo’s mother, Cheryl Santangelo, spoke of the farm’s journey and finances, saying it started when her husband first planted one room full of mushrooms.
“They came out so he planted more. We were planting, picking and packing by hand. We cut, sliced, did everything by hand. Our two daughters came and helped and our son-in-law, too. If we needed them, they came and helped,” she said. “We hired some help, but financially we couldn’t do too much because we just getting started. Sometimes we picked until 1 a.m. and then got up at 5 a.m. to go to our other jobs.”
She later added: “It’s a very costly business to grow mushrooms.”