WATERVILLE — Talk to business owners and workers along Silver Street and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t support Hector Fuentes.
“He is one of the nicest, kindest, biggest-hearted, most endearing men I’ve ever encountered in my life,” said Cheryl Pellerin, bartender at The Last Unicorn restaurant.
Fuentes’ Cancun Mexican Restaurant is next door to the Last Unicorn on the short stretch of street downtown that features several restaurants and other businesses.
It was here two years ago that federal agents raided Cancun and arrested Fuentes, then 37, and charged him with conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens and engaging in a pattern or practice of hiring unauthorized aliens.
Area businesspeople at the time expressed disbelief that Fuentes, a well-known restaurateur who gave to charity and was involved in downtown events, had done anything wrong. They praised him as a dedicated businessman, husband and father. They pitched in to help keep his restaurant running after his former workers were detained.
In March, Fuentes was convicted on charges of conspiracy, harboring undocumented aliens for profit and aiding and abetting document fraud.
On Wednesday, as his Waterville supporters learned that a federal judge ordered a new trial, they expressed relief that Fuentes will be given another chance. The new trial was granted because a juror referred to Fuentes and his brother, Guillermo, as “guilty” and used the racial slur “wetbacks” during the two men’s trial, according to court documents.
“I was surprised at the original outcome, but very pleased about the outcome of the judge picking up on prejudice,” said John Fortier, owner of State Farm Insurance next to Cancun.
Fortier is a friend of Gov. Paul LePage, who had his gubernatorial primary campaign victory party at Cancun in June 2010. Fortier more recently hosted a LePage re-election fundraiser at his Belgrade home, where two attendees who did not want their identities known alleged they heard LePage say President Barack Obama hates white people. Fortier wouldn’t comment about the fundraising event.
Fortier is a former city councilor and Planning Board member whose office has been on Silver Street for 34 years. He said Fuentes has done a lot to improve the downtown area.
“He’s always been very willing to help anybody looking for a fundraising donation,” Fortier said. “He’s just a good, all-around businessperson and a good neighbor and a hard worker.”
If Fuentes were forced to leave town, it would be a “definite loss to downtown and this neighborhood,” said Fortier, who described the area as a go-to place for diners.
“It’s a restaurant row now. … It’s kind of a unique restaurant area that is not owned by the corporate world,” he said.
Joe Plumstead, chef at Silver Street Tavern down the street, described Fuentes as a likable person.
“I hope everything works out well for him,” said Plumstead, former owner of The Last Unicorn. “He’s a very nice guy. He was always a great neighbor to me.”
Silver Street Tavern owner Charlie Giguere called from Key West, Fla., to say Fuentes has been a good friend for years and he does not want to see him go away.
“We’re all rooting for him, and certainly after the news of what that juror said, we’re rooting for him even more,” Giguere said.
Pellerin, at the Unicorn, said she has worked at the restaurant 12 years and has known Fuentes since he opened his restaurant in 2008.
“He would do anything for anybody,” she said. “When we need to borrow lemons, avocados, we go to him. Our ice machine broke down. Where did we get ice? From Hector. I love him and I think he’s wonderful, and I think he’s gotten a raw deal. I think he’s amazing and I think the community needs to (support him).”
Fuentes declined to comment. His attorney, Leonard Sharon, was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Amy Calder — 861-9247