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Javier Serrano was met by the media as he appeared for a hearing in Immigration Court last year in Bloomington, Minn. He was ordered deported to Mexico, but never went back.
Javier Serrano was met by the media as he appeared for a hearing in Immigration Court last year in Bloomington, Minn. He was ordered deported to Mexico, but never went back. (Joey McLeister/ Minneapolis Star Tribune/ 2005)

A tale of hope gets a jarring new chapter

Celebrated immigrant faces intruder charge

It was a story that touched the hearts of Minnesotans. But now it has taken a surprising turn, in Boston.

A homeless, 22-year-old, undocumented immigrant from Mexico was found secretly living inside a Twin Cities high school last year, using the showers and foraging for cafeteria food. Francisco Javier Serrano's story captivated the news media there and moved a wealthy developer to provide him with money, an immigration attorney, and a rent-free apartment overlooking downtown Minneapolis.

But immigration officials ordered Serrano back to Mexico. Officials believed that he boarded a plane for his home country Jan. 5, and it seemed to be a closed case.

Then, two weeks ago, a tenant in Boston's North End heard a sound inside his apartment. A man with a knife had broken in. The tenant struck the intruder with a kitchen pan, and police responded to find Serrano and the tenant in a struggle, authorities said.

Now, Serrano sits in Suffolk County Jail facing charges of home invasion. And authorities, the friends he made in Minnesota, and even his mother in Mexico City are trying to figure out how and why the baby-faced, quiet man ended up in a stranger's apartment in Boston.

''I'm absolutely shocked," said Rochelle Barrett, who along with her husband, the developer Basim Sabri, hired an immigration lawyer for Serrano. ''I never saw this side of him. I never thought he could be capable of doing something like this."

A spokesman for the Twin Cities office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Tim Counts, said his agency has no idea how Serrano got to Boston, but expects to gain custody and deport him.

A federal immigration judge had granted Serrano permission to leave the United States voluntarily by Jan. 5. But now officials suspect he never boarded the plane after waving goodbye to supporters and journalists who saw him off at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

For weeks after his scheduled departure, neither his family in Mexico nor his friends in Minnesota heard from Serrano. Barrett became worried when he did not pick up $1,000 she wired to Mexico City.

Immigration officials received a tip Monday that Serrano had turned up in Boston. Counts said Boston police provided authorities with Serrano's fingerprints, which helped confirm his identity.

Because Serrano has no history of violence and did not hurt the tenant, prosecutors expect to downgrade the charge of home invasion to breaking and entering, said David Procopio, spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for April 28. If convicted, he could face up to 2 1/2 years in the County House of Correction. After serving the sentence, he would be deported, Counts said.

A public defender has been assigned to represent Serrano, but could not be reached yesterday.

Boston police say Serrano told them he had been staying at a Motel 6 in Braintree, Procopio said. A Motel 6 spokeswoman said Serrano checked in in late March and stayed only for two days.

Serrano traveled from Mexico to Minnesota in 2002, to live with his father. He fell in love with the United States and wanted to stay, go to college, and get a good enough job so he could send money to his family in Mexico, said his mother, Guadalupe Flores, who spoke to the Globe by telephone from her home in Mexico City yesterday.

His visa only allowed him to stay in this country for six months, but he remained here. When his father moved from Minnesota to Connecticut, Serrano followed, but left when the two had a falling out, his mother said.

''He decided to live his life on his own," she said, crying. ''But he did it very badly."

Around January 2005, Serrano returned to Minnesota, where he had made some friends during his first stay and felt comfortable. Without any way to support himself, he took refuge in Apple Valley High School, where a janitor eventually found him sleeping.

News reports dubbed him the ''Apple Valley High squatter," and an outpouring of public support followed. But local police charged him with trespassing, which triggered deportation proceedings.

That's when Sabri, a Palestinian commercial real estate developer, took action. Saying he respected Serrano's desire to make something of himself, Barrett said, Sabri bailed him out and gave him the use of the apartment. ''My husband felt bad for him," Barrett said.

To repay the favor, Serrano would help out at Sabri's commercial sites with cleaning and other menial tasks. ''He had a life of luxury and did whatever he wanted," she said.

The couple knew little of Serrano's life. He was reserved and would say little when Barrett asked about his family. But he talked eagerly about his dreams for the future, including ideas for inventions such as a protective bubble for construction workers toiling on high-rise building that would inflate automatically if one of them should fall.

''It made me laugh when he told me about it," she said.

But he grew grim when he learned last year that the judge denied his request for an extended visa and ruled that he would have to return to Mexico. Herbert Igbanugo, the lawyer Barrett and Sabri hired, advised Serrano to leave the country voluntarily and apply for a student visa. ''I was fairly confident of bringing him back," Igbanugo said. ''I thought he was in agreement with me."

On Jan. 4, Serrano's friends threw him a goodbye party at a Minneapolis bar. The next day, Barrett, Igbanugo, and a group of Minnesota reporters following Serrano's story watched as he walked through the security gate of the airport to board a plane to Mexico City.

Igbanugo now believes that Serrano waited for the crowds to leave and sneaked out of the airport. ''Maybe when he got to the airport, he got scared he'd never be able to come back," he said.

What happened during the three months between that day and now remain a mystery.

Flores, his mother, wants to understand where he has been.

She wants to see him, too, but worries she may not have enough money to fly to Boston and find her son. ''I don't know why he was so afraid of coming back to Mexico," she said. ''He had a normal life here."

Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

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