McLennan County Sheriff’s Office deputies raided the Vegas Buffet restaurant Friday in what investigators described as a labor trafficking case involving undocumented Central American and Chinese workers.

About a dozen deputies, assisted by personnel from six other government agencies and a nonprofit, entered the restaurant at 505 N. Valley Mills Drive at about 10 a.m. Sheriff Parnell McNamara said the business operators, Zhi “Jimmy” Lin, 31, and Yali Yang, 30, were arrested on labor trafficking charges.

As of late Friday morning, several workers remained inside, some talking to translators from UnBound Waco, an anti-trafficking nonprofit.

“What we have here is the culmination of about a three-month investigation by the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office,” McNamara said. “This is a labor trafficking case, and we have 19 people inside from Guatemala and some from China. … This is a case where people have been trafficked for labor and this is basically a labor/slave case.”

Search warrants state investigators found evidence the restaurant was hiring workers from a trafficking operation. An informant reported to authorities in mid-May that workers were made to work 13 hours a day, six days a week, earning about $2,000 per month, a pay rate below minimum wage.

The informant said workers were threatened with deportation if they did not pay the trafficker the fee for transporting them illegally into the United States, according to affidavits.

China, Central America

The informant told authorities that the workers paid thousands of dollars to be brought to the United States. Other workers owed $15,000 if they were from Central America or $80,000 if they were from China, according to the affidavit.

Workers from Guatemala worked in the kitchen while workers from China worked on the floor, the warrant states.

The informant told authorities that some workers lived at an apartment in Waco, and a white van would pick up the group and take them to the Vegas Buffet. The apartment was provided by the operators, Zhi Lin and Yali Lang, who are married and own a house in China Spring, according to the affidavit.

“(The informant) stated that one of the individuals … is a 16-year-old male, who is an unaccompanied minor,” the warrant affidavit states. “(The informant) further stated that she and all of the others are illegal in the United States and that (they were) smuggled through the desert before going to Houston.”

China Spring house

Meanwhile, another group of eight Chinese workers lived with Zhi Lin at the house in China Spring and were driven daily to work the floor of the restaurant, according to the affidavit. McNamara said while detectives raided the restaurant, officers with the department’s Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team raided the apartment and the couple’s China Spring home.

“It appears that this may be tied into other (trafficking) operations, but we don’t know at this point,” McNamara said. “This is surprising to us that (labor trafficking) is happening at this magnitude with this many people.”

A large passenger van, believed to be used to transport the workers to and from the restaurant, was towed away by authorities Friday afternoon. Another U-Haul truck was also removed from the property during the raid.

The workers who were rescued from the restaurant met with translators from UnBound to help gather information about their work at the restaurant. McNamara said services will be offered to the workers to determine the next course of action for the employees.

Not facing deportation

UnBound Executive Director Susan Peters said the workers are not facing deportation, because they are victims of a crime. She said because most of the workers are adults, they have a choice to accept services provided by Unbound, including legal services and financial guidance.

Authorities said the restaurant would remain closed Friday, and the future of the business is uncertain.

Kristin Hoppa has been covering public safety and breaking news for the Tribune-Herald since January 2016. She worked in Northwest Missouri covering crime-related issues before her move to Central Texas. She is a University of Kansas graduate.

Staff writer at the Waco Tribune-Herald covering courts and criminal justice. Follow me on Twitter @TSpoonFeed.

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