Orange County prosecutors have dropped misdemeanor charges against two suspects who allegedly attacked two menbecause many of the witnesses and victims are awaiting deportation and can’t be found to help build the case.

In June, Yuliant Fernandez and Amilcar Tamayo, drivers for Transportes Tania, a Houston-based transportation company, were arrested in Hillsborough for allegedly assaulting two men who refused to pay an extra $500 in exchange for the release of a passenger. (See “Human smuggling in Orange County,” July 16, 2008.)

According to Hillsborough Police Lt. Davis Trimmer, the two men who had arrived to pick up the passenger called police saying they allegedly had been assaulted. Police records show that Fernandez allegedly held a knife to the neck of one of the two men, and slashed his van’s tires, while Tamayo and Fernandez pelted the van with rocks.

After reporting the incident to police, the victims later fled the scene. The passenger escaped from Tamayo and Fernandez by leaping out of the Transportes Tania van, according to police reports.

Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said the assault victimswhose home addresses in Clinton are listed in the police reporthave been processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It is unclear how or when the victims were detained, and as of press time ICE could not confirm or deny that they had been.

As for the passengers, ICE spokesman Ivan Ortiz told the Indy that on the night of the arrest, Hillsborough Police handed over to ICE 14 of the 15 passengers Fernandez and Tamayo were transporting. Thirteen have been released “on reconnaissance”or surveillanceand are awaiting their deportation hearings. One already has been deported.

It is unclear whether the 15th passenger, who escaped from the van, was taken into ICE custody because Ortiz would not disclose the names of individuals involved.

Witnesses to build the case were unavailable, in part, because they had been taken into ICE custody, Woodall and Tamayo’s defense attorney, George Doyle, said.

Meanwhile, prosecutors have dropped all charges against the suspected assailantsincluding three counts of assault with a deadly weapon.

Woodall said without essential witnesses, his office must dismiss a case, and it has little chance of prosecuting defendants a second time for the same charges. He said that the most common impediment to prosecuting crimes against illegal immigrants is victims’ fear that they will be deported if they come forward. In addition, he said that some cases fail when ICE actually detains or deports, victims.

“What has happened, on occasionand this is the situation in the case you’re talking aboutwe’ve had instances where people who are in the country illegally were essential witnesses in cases, and they’ve either been picked up and detained or actually deported before we could conclude the case,” he said.

With advance notice, Woodall said, his office has collaborated with ICE to ensure that witnesses who are illegal immigrants stay in the country long enough to testify in a case by issuing them a temporary visa. However, he attributed extensive paperwork and a lack of communication between federal and local agencies to several dropped caseseven when local agencies are aware of victims being held in federal immigration custody.

“In a case like this, where the individuals were picked up the actual night it happened, were detained, and were essentially gone within just a few hours, we simply don’t have the opportunity to file that paperwork,” Woodall said.

Meanwhile, Doyle said that Fernandez and Tamayo are “back in Houston with their transportation service.”