Prosecutors have reached plea deals with at least three women arrested earlier this summer in what authorities hoped would become the state's first employer sanctions case.
The agreements, in which the women pleaded guilty to lesser charges, may mean the women are agreeing to give up evidence against their former employer, Mesa's Golfland Entertainment Centers, according an attorney involved in the case.
The women, Monica Ibanez-Aranda, 40, Maria del Pilar Baez, 36, and Erika Fabiola Ibarra-Cerda, 31, were among nine people arrested during the June raids of Valley water parks owned by Golfland.
All nine were originally charged with forgery and identification theft, which are mid-level felonies.
The three women have each since pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of felony criminal impersonation.
At the time, the Maricopa County sheriff's and attorney's offices said they were investigating a tip that the company knowingly hired illegal immigrants to work at the water parks.
If it panned out, Golfland could have become the first company sued under Arizona's employer sanctions law, which went into effect at the beginning of the year. The law allows the state to suspend a business or shut it down if it is caught hiring undocumented workers.
At the time, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said investigators did not have enough evidence to punish the business, only enough to arrest and charge a few workers with the mid-level felonies.
The plea agreements show, however, the case is still churning, if not escalating. "What I think is happening behind the scenes is I think the state's trying to get these people to snitch," said county legal defender Robert McWhirter, who is representing one of the other defendants in the case. "It sounds to me like they're grasping at straws."
The details of the plea agreements remain sealed by the court, and county prosecutors declined to answer specific questions about the case. Attorneys for the women did not return calls for comment.
Still, county attorney spokesman Barnett Lotstein hinted that the women had agreed to turn evidence against Golfland.
"You do recall Mr. Thomas in the past has indicated that these cases take a while, that you need cooperation to get to the bottom of them," Lotstein said. "I will not confirm or deny whether or not they are cooperating. However, it is not unusual in cases of this type for people to plead to lesser charges if they are assisting the government."
In the past month, court records show, prosecutors have dismissed the original felony charges against the women, who pleaded guilty to the lighter charges, and two of them were released from jail until their sentencings, scheduled for October.
It is unclear whether the women, who were also suspected of being in the country illegally, also face deportation.
David Johnson, a spokesman for Golfland, responded to the plea deals in an e-mail Thursday, saying the company has not been accused of breaking the law.
"Although the County Attorney has not asked for any further assistance, Golfland has cooperated with previous requests and will continue to do so," Johnson wrote.
McWhirter, the defense attorney, said the women may prove to be unreliable witnesses.
At the time of the arrests, he said, each of the defendants told investigators Golfland had no knowledge of their fake documents.
"I think there's some real questions about their reliability," he said. "It looks like the employer was doing exactly what the employer was supposed to do."
Since the raids at Golfland, county law enforcement has also targeted other Valley businesses in similar operations.
Artistic Landscape Management, another Mesa company, was raided last month. Gold Canyon Candle Co. in Chandler was raided last week.