California food truck builder took nearly $1 million from victims, prosecutors allege

A food truck builder who had become a symbol of the perils of working in the mobile food industry was charged Thursday with fraudulently taking nearly $1 million from more than two dozen clients, according to a criminal complaint filed by the Stanislaus County district attorney's office.

The complaint alleges that Fernando Ochoa Jauregui, 28, owner of 8A Food Trucks, took about $993,000 from 28 customers, most of whom were working-class immigrants starting or expanding their businesses.

"The manner in which the crime was carried out indicated planning, sophistication, or professionalism," the complaint alleged.

Ochoa, who was arrested Tuesday in Modesto and held at a county jail in lieu of $500,000 bail, pleaded not guilty at an arraignment Thursday afternoon.

The builder's customers have accused him of not delivering vehicles and refusing to return their partial or full payments. Others have alleged that they received trucks and trailers so poorly built that they couldn’t be used. And some have accused Ochoa of taking back vehicles they’d purchased from him and his company.

Read more: Food truck kingpin denies claims he took workers' money and never delivered the trucks

In the courtroom, Ochoa sat quietly with handcuffed hands as the judge read out the charges. Represented by a public defender, he answered yes-or-no questions with the help of a Spanish interpreter. His next court date is July 10.

The charges against Ochoa come two months after a report by The Times detailed the plight of his alleged victims. Unhappy 8A Food Trucks customers from across California described toiling as cooks, custodians and construction workers, saving for years to get a chance at starting their own business, only to have their dreams dashed. Some said that the alleged losses were especially painful because they came at the hands of one of their own: a Mexican immigrant who lived in the Central Valley and previously worked at an industrial shop.

Ochoa, who touted his business savvy and penchant for partying in Spanish corridos, denied many of the allegations in a February interview. The flashy, Corvette-driving builder acknowledged some mistakes, chalking them up in part to his inexperience in business. He founded Ceres, Calif.-based 8A Food Trucks in 2019.

“I’m trying to deal with this scandal so I can make my business better again — I had a real company,” Ochoa said in February. “I’m not a business expert. I just know how to build trucks.”

Read more: Inside the ruthless crime wave targeting L.A.’s vulnerable street food vendors

Several customers included in The Times' February report were named in the complaint, which covers a roughly four-year span beginning in June 2020.

For Norma Estevez, a Salinas resident who paid $60,000 for two food trailers that she said she never received from Ochoa, news of his arrest gave her a sense of relief.

"We've waited such a long time for this day to come," said Estevez, whose husband, Sebastian Delgado, is listed in the complaint. "I'm very happy because ... his arrest reaffirms what we have been saying all along."

Estevez, who said she lost a lucrative contract to provide food to agricultural workers after not receiving the trailers, filed a lawsuit against Ochoa for breach of contract and other claims in July 2022. Months later, the parties agreed to a settlement that called for Ochoa to pay Estevez and her husband about $70,000, including attorney’s fees, according to court documents.

She said that Ochoa has paid only $30,000 — and hopes that the government will seize his assets and auction them off as a way to repay her and some of the other alleged victims.

"And if not, then I hope he goes to jail and stays there for all the emotional pain he caused us," Estevez said.

Ochoa previously acknowledged that he didn’t meet an agreed-upon deadline for the delivery of Estevez's trailers. “Norma’s situation was that if she didn’t get the trailers by a certain date, then she wasn’t going to need them,” he said.

The builder has been featured in Spanish media as a cautionary tale of the food truck industry. A 2023 Univision report on Ochoa warned those entering the business to exercise extreme caution.

The controversy comes at a fraught moment for vendors in Southern California. Several in the L.A. area were robbed by gunmen last summer in brazen attacks that highlight the risks of selling food on Southland streets.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.