Swindler is back after two years in prison

Day laborers Jesus Ramos and Bruno Cruz say they were never paid for construction jobs
Paul Demko

Bruno Caballero Cruz just wanted to work. The native of Oaxaca, Mexico, had been in this country for less than a year. Back home, his wife, six children, and elderly mother were counting on his financial support. "That's why I felt so pressured," he says.

In September, Cruz and a handful of other Mexican workers landed what seemed like a solid gig. Integrity Construction Services offered to pay them $12 an hour to perform work at a variety of job sites around the Twin Cities.

For two weeks the money rolled in. The construction company's representative paid them in cash at the end of each workweek. "We were working hard, until 11 o'clock at night, because we needed money," recalls Cruz, speaking through a translator.

But after the third week on the job, Cruz and his fellow laborers ran into a problem: They got stiffed.

The company's representative promised to stop by the job site with their pay; they waited until 9 p.m., but he never showed up. In the following days the pattern repeated itself. After more than a week, the man stopped returning calls.

"Every day it was a different story," Cruz recalls. "The second he stopped answering our phone calls, we knew."

Cruz is seated at a conference table inside Bethany Lutheran Church in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. The stocky 45-year-old wears a sweatshirt and jeans and has a thin mustache and bushy black hair.

What Cruz didn't know at the time was that the man who owed him money had a very long history of preying on immigrant workers. Gabriel Francois and the various companies that he's created have been sued roughly 200 times in Hennepin County District Court. In 2004 he was sentenced to 37 months in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of theft by swindle ("Gabby Goes Down," 12/15/04).

"This guy is pathological, unstoppable," says Brandon Deshler, a retired Edina police detective whose investigative work helped put Francois away in 2004.

In an attempt to recoup their losses, Cruz and four fellow workers filed lawsuits against Francois in Hennepin County Conciliation Court. In December, when Francois failed to show up for a hearing, Cruz was awarded $2,527 in damages.

In January, however, Francois sought to have this default judgment overturned. "Personally I don't owe any money," he wrote in a filing. "This person has been fully payed (sic) under a settlement."

A check for $110 in administrative fees accompanied Francois's court filing. However, the check bounced. A new hearing on the matter is set for May.

Francois adamantly insists that he's done absolutely nothing wrong and will ultimately be vindicated in court. In a meeting at a Caribou Coffee shop in Bloomington, he plays back a phone message allegedly from Cruz in which he threatens Francois's children and wife. Francois further charges that one of the workers took his truck without permission and still possesses some of his tools. "I would like to bring a counterclaim, but what would they have to give me?" he asks.

Francois also maintains that his days of fiscal chicanery are in the past. "I'm a changed man," he says, noting that he's been involved in prison ministries and become a devout Christian. He displays several letters from prisoners testifying to the positive impact he's had on their lives. "I paid the price. I didn't hide. I didn't run out of the country. I faced the music."

But he hasn't paid all his debts. Francois has a rather lengthy list of creditors. According to court records, there are at least 42 judgments against him, totaling nearly a million dollars in damages. Despite the red ink, Francois and his wife, Lom, continue to own a half-million-dollar house in Bloomington.

One of many court files details how Ron Berglund paid Francois nearly $7,000 for a vending-machine business that never materialized. The judgment he won in 2002 hasn't been very helpful. The only payment Berglund has received is a pair of checks—for a couple of dollars each—drawn from a compensation fund earned by Francois while in prison. "I was tempted to frame them," Berglund says of the paltry checks. "It was ridiculous."

Mick Spence, an attorney who represented several Somali entrepreneurs who were bilked by Francois, says his clients haven't seen a dime of the roughly $100,000 owed to them. Even so, Francois filed to have the judgment set aside, an idea rejected by Spence. "This guy's got some big opinion of himself," Spence says of Francois.

Despite the seemingly quixotic quest to shake any money out of Francois, Cruz isn't going away quietly. Last week he joined organizers from the Workers Interfaith Network in handing out flyers along Lake Street warning of Francois's habit of shortchanging immigrants. "Watch out for this employer," the flyers read, above a mug shot of the ex-con. "Gabriel Francois has ripped off many workers."

Brian Payne, an organizer with the Workers Interfaith Network, says such situations aren't uncommon for low-wage laborers, particularly illegal immigrants. "The most common story we hear about is wage theft," says Payne. In just the last six months, his group has helped workers recoup $60,000 in unpaid wages from recalcitrant employers. "We've just seen this as a constant problem."

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