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The Thatched Cottage as it appeared circa July 2012. Photo from Facebook

The former owner of a once-popular Centerport restaurant admitted to forcing immigrants to work at his establishment.

Huntington resident Ralph Colamussi, former owner of the Thatched Cottage and Jellyfish Grill, pled guilty Sept. 26 before U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley in Central Islip federal court to charges of forced labor of employees. He faces up to 20 years in prison, as well as restitution to his victims and a fine of up to $250,000.

East Northport resident Ralph Colamussi was arrested Dec. 11 on charges of allegedly exploiting immigrant workers at his Centerport restaurant. File photo

In December 2017, Colamussi was arrested alongside his former restaurant manager Roberto Villanueva on charges of conspiring to engage in forced labor of immigrants, visa fraud and fraud in foreign labor contracting.

In entering his guilty plea, Colamussi admitted to bringing prospective workers from the Philippines to the United States on H-2B visas that expired shortly after their arrival here. Once the visas expired, the former restaurant owner admitted to encouraging workers to apply for student visas by fraudulently representing they intended to attend school full time and had the resources to do so. Colamussi admitted at times he would deposit funds in the workers’ bank accounts to ensure the appearance of ample financial resources to attend school and then would withdraw the funds once a student visa was approved.

“This case is an example of ruthless labor trafficking hiding in plain sight,” said Angel Melendez, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations special agent-in-charge at the time of Colamussi’s arrest. “These individuals allegedly committed visa fraud while forcing people to work in their catering hall under horrible conditions in what seemed to be an inescapable situation.”

The restauranteur also admitted when immigrant workers objected to performing certain jobs, such as working consecutive shifts or not being paid promptly, he threatened to report them to immigration. In the original indictment, federal prosecutors said Colamussi threatened his employees with physical violence and deportation. In one instance, Colamussi allegedly asked a worker to assist him in burning down the Thatched Cottage, and then threatened the worker with a knife for refusing to aid him.

This is not the first time Colamussi has faced legal issues over his operation and management of the former Centerport restaurant. Colamussi filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy of the Thatched Cottage in January 2014, after which the restaurant was sold at auction for $4.65 million in September 2014. Lawsuits followed as December 2015 court documents claimed he transferred funds to Jellyfish Restaurant, and he was ordered by the judge to pay restitution.