Domingo Lopez Vargas was not the first Hispanic day laborer to be picked up by some white teenagers, taken to the woods, beaten and robbed of hundreds of dollars.

Two other Hispanic workers before him were allegedly attacked by some of the same youths.

The accused attackers include the grandson of a prominent couple who helped found the county's Republican Party, and whose ties to two judges and the district attorney led them to recuse themselves from the case.

Now the teenagers may be charged with hate crimes for seeking out immigrants who often carry large amounts of cash, speak little English and are willing to get in anyone's car if promised a job.

"It obviously grew out of the fact that they were Hispanics," said Joe Beasley, Southeast director for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. "They know Hispanics are vulnerable because many of them don't speak English."

Vargas, 55, a legal immigrant from Guatemala, said he was outside a grocery store in Canton, about 35 miles north of Atlanta, when four youths pulled up in a green truck, offering work for $9 an hour. He got in and was driven to a remote area, where the boys told him to empty trash bags out of the back of the truck.

As Vargas got to work, one of the boys hit him with a large stick as the others watched.

"From the pain I was feeling, I wasn't able to count how many times I was hit," said Vargas, speaking through an interpreter about the February beating. "I was left there half-dead, and I did battle to get to find somebody."

They took $260 from Vargas's wallet and pulled a gold chain with a Virgin Mary pendant from his neck. His right forearm is still healing from a minor break and he has not been able to work.

The youths bragged about the mugging at school -- a boast that soon led to their arrests. Police found the chain and pendant in a trash can at Cherokee High School, which they attended.

The beatings of day laborers are not the only recent racial incidents in Canton, a town of 7,709. It is 78 percent white and 5 percent black. About 24 percent identify themselves as Hispanics of any race, according to census data.

In the case of the day laborers, prosecutors are considering charging the five youths with hate crimes. A decision will come after the investigation is complete, said Kathy Watkins, spokeswoman for the Cobb County district attorney, who is handling the case because of the Cherokee County district attorney's political ties to one suspect's family.

The students -- four are 18 years old and one is 16 -- were arrested on charges including armed robbery, aggravated assault and false imprisonment. They are Ben Cagle, Kenneth "Ian" Beavers, Brian Cowart, Chad Whetherington and Devin Wheeling.

The youths come from various backgrounds, but Cagle's family is the most prominent. His family owns the 125-acre Cagle's Dairy, the only dairy in Georgia to produce and process its milk on-site. His grandparents started the county's Republican Party.

The family's connections led the local judges and prosecutor to recuse themselves from the case because of potential conflicts of interest. Cagle's uncle had given a $400 donation to one of the judges, and the district attorney has said he is a family friend.

Cagle's attorney said the youth would plead not guilty if indicted. The other youths' lawyers declined to comment.

"He comes from an incredibly American, flag-waving, apple-pie family," said Linda Parker, former head of the county's Republican Party who is now secretary for the Georgia Republican Party. "It was a real shock to the community. There was no rhyme or reason to this."

The alleged muggings have raised questions about whether there are deeper rifts in the area between the white majority and a largely undocumented Hispanic day laborer population, which waits on street corners for contractors to offer work.

Some people speculate there may have been other beatings of Hispanics that have gone unreported because the victims fear repercussions if they come forward.

"People just are afraid. If they're undocumented, they're afraid to say anything because they don't want to ruffle the feathers or be obvious in any way, so they don't say anything," said Maria Teresa Fraser, honorary consul for Guatemala in Atlanta.

That makes the Hispanic working population vulnerable to predators who believe they can get away with providing little pay or job safety.

"You can understand the dangers these workers face every day seeking work," said Joel Alvarado, a policy analyst for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "The way they were able to entice these individuals to get into these vehicles was the promise of work."

Vargas, whose arm is still wrapped in a brace, said he does not understand what led to his beating.

"I would think it's because I am a stranger in this country, and they're envious in some way," he said. "To this day, I don't know why they chose me, but I was very happy to be on my way to work, and I had no idea that they were thieves."

Domingo Lopez Vargas says he was assaulted and robbed by five white youths near Canton, Ga. The youths may face hate-crime charges.