12 Charged in Alleged 'Modern-Day Slave' Scheme

Twelve people — eight of them from Uzbekistan — are accused in a federal indictment of luring illegal immigrants to the U.S. to work as "modern-day slaves" in 14 states.

Prosecutors announced Wednesday that a federal grand jury in Kansas City issued a 45-count indictment May 6 under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act that included charges of labor racketeering, forced labor trafficking and immigration violations.

Matt Whitworth, acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri, said Wednesday that the defendants used false information to obtain fake work visas for the foreign workers, who were then threatened with deportation while living in substandard apartments and working for inadequate pay.

The indictment says the conspiracy involved fraudulent labor leasing contracts in Missouri, Kansas, Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, South Carolina and Wyoming.

Eight of the 12 defendants were arrested Tuesday, when the indictment was unsealed. They made their first court appearances in the states where they were arrested and are being held in federal custody until they are brought to Kansas City, said Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.

The scheme ensnared hundreds of illegal immigrants who worked at hotels, construction sites, and in other businesses, many of them in the Kansas City area and in the southwest Missouri resort town of Branson, Whitworth said.

"The indictment alleges that this criminal enterprise lured victims to the United States under the guise of legitimate jobs and a better life, only to treat them as modern-day slaves under the threat of deportation," said James Gibbons, acting special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement based in Chicago.

The employees allegedly were required to pay exorbitant rent to live in barely furnished apartments that "ensured that the workers did not make enough to repay their debt, purchase a plane ticket home or pay their own living expenses while in the United States," according to Whitworth.

The workers also allegedly had to pay for transportation to their jobs, uniform fees and other fees that, combined with low pay or lack of work, often left them with paychecks that had negative earnings, prosecutors said. They were threatened with physical harm, deportation or other legal problems if they did not comply. The scheme also controlled the workers by not allowing them to receive mail, prosecutors said.

The companies indicted were Kansas City labor leasing company Giant Labor Solutions; Crystal Management, Inc., headquartered in Mission, Kan.; and Five Star Cleaning, headquartered in Overland Park, Kan.

Court records did not list lawyers for any of the defendants, and Ledford said the U.S. attorney's office was not sure if any of them had hired lawyers.

A telephone mailbox at a number of Giant Labor Solutions was full and could not accept messages Wednesday. No phone listings were found for Crystal Management or Five Star Cleaning. Ledford said it's likely the two companies were run out of private homes and are no longer in existence.