The nearby migrant camp was last robbed Nov. 16, the same night the 4-year-old boy was shot. Six workers living at the dormitory-style camp were robbed by two or three gunmen, who carried away a 50-inch high-definition television.
It was the third straight Friday night the camp had been robbed. And the next evening, a man riding his bike near the camp was robbed of $40 by someone with a gun in a Chevrolet SUV, according to 911 and police records.
The camp, for Wayne Bailey Produce Co., is a simple cream-colored building with a red roof and enough room to house 50 workers. It's accessible only by a long gravel driveway that weaves between an old home and the produce facility, past large sweet potato bins and the Ramirez home.
Roger Lane, the farm's manager, had stacked wooden crates full of potatoes across the path to keep cars out. It didn't work. Lane thinks the robbers parked nearby and walked through the fields to get to the building where the workers slept.
Some of the workers started sleeping in their cars to keep their belongings locked up. Some would stand watch during the day, others at night. Lane pays them by direct deposit so they don't carry around much cash.
In previous break-ins, about $100 was reported stolen, Lane said.
"There's no big amount of money, so whoever is doing this is taking a big risk to get $20 to $100," he said.
The labor camp was deserted last week. The workers have completed their contracts picking and processing sweet potatoes and squash, and they left the day before Thanksgiving on a chartered bus bound for Mexico. The six robbery victims and any witnesses to the crime are now back in Mexico.
Myriam Hudson, executive director of the N.C. Farmworkers Project, said reports like these come every year, every season.
The project aims to improve the living condition of an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 farm workers in Johnston, Sampson, Duplin and Harnett counties.
"It's very frequent at the end of the season for these robberies to start happening," Hudson said. "The robbers already know the farm workers are ready to go. That's why they are an easy target for them."
And it often makes the crimes difficult to prosecute.
Even if lawmen make an arrest, it's tough to find the victims or witnesses and persuade them to return for a trial.
Ken White is director of the N.C Growers Association, which brings about 7,000 H2A guest workers a year to North Carolina. His workers are warned about the danger of robberies and keeping cash on hand as soon as they arrive in Vass on a bus from Mexico.
The Growers Association has noted an increase in criminals targeting migrants within the past five or six years.
"(Thieves) could get a lot more money doing that as opposed to going to a convenience store and trying to stick up a convenience store," White said. "It got to be known that it was an easy score."
The association encourages its workers to get bank accounts.
But many migrants can't because they are undocumented, and those who are legal can find the process difficult. Some growers, typically the bigger employers, provide direct deposit or debit cards.
White says providing those options and educating more workers could improve the situation.
Neither White nor Hudson, of the N.C. Farmworkers Project, thinks law enforcement does enough to protect migrant workers. Hudson said patrols should be stepped up, especially near the end of the season.
"Farm workers -- usually, people don't really care about them," she said. "I'm not saying all the people, but a majority."
Pope said Sampson County deputies have stepped up patrols and are working overtime to develop leads. But each of the five deputies who patrol the rural county have about 192 square miles to cover, and farm camps are scattered.
Sampson County has three deputies who speak Spanish and a contract for interpreters. Bilingual deputies are hard to keep, Pope said, because they're often recruited by larger agencies.
As of last week, deputies had no leads or suspects in the four cases from the weekend before Thanksgiving. With the crops harvested and most migrants gone, the robberies are likely to slow down, at least until next year.
But Hispanic families who remain here through the winter still live in fear that they could lose everything in an instant.
"We want justice," said Lopez, the woman who is a neighbor to the shot 4-year-old. "Justice, and no more robberies."
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