PHILADELPHIA – Five Ukrainian brothers have been charged with smuggling desperate young adults from their homeland and forcing them into bondage cleaning Targets, Walmarts, and other stores and offices, authorities said Wednesday.
The Botsvynyuk (bots-VIN'-yuk) brothers promised jobs paying $500 a month and free room and board, but instead paid crews little or nothing for their 16-hour days, the racketeering and extortion indictment charged.
Four of the brothers were arrested Wednesday — one in Germany, two in Canada and one in Philadelphia. A warrant has been issued for a fifth man, but Ukrainian police are not required to seek his arrest because the U.S. has no extradition treaty with Ukraine.
"The victims in this case entered this country with dreams of great opportunity only to find themselves living a nightmare," U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger said at a news conference. "No one trying to immigrate to this country should have to endure such mistreatment."
A federal public defender was appointed at a hearing Wednesday for the suspect arrested in Philadelphia, 35-year-old Stepan Botsvynyuk, who will be held until a July 8 detention hearing. He entered the country legally but overstayed his visa, authorities said.
An overseas tip sparked the investigation in 2005, but authorities said they had to overcome language and trust barriers as they worked with victims. The group includes young Ukrainian men desperate for work after finishing military service and a woman who was told her young daughter would be forced into prostitution in Ukraine if she fled, the FBI said. About eight victims are now cooperating.
There is no evidence the retailers and other employers, who typically hired cleaning crews through subcontractors, knew of the abusive working conditions, Memeger said.
The victims are expected to get temporary visas so they can stay in the U.S. legally while the court case unfolds, and can later apply for permanent residency, officials said.
The Department of Justice pursues about 60 human trafficking cases each year, officials said. Memeger said he did not know how much money the Botsvynyuks amassed through their alleged scheme, but prosecutors will eventually seek forfeiture of their assets.
"It's sad but true — here in this country, people are being bought, sold and smuggled. They are trapped in lives of misery — often beaten, starved and forced to work long hard hours for little or no pay," said FBI special agent Doug Lindquist, who heads a counterterrorism unit in Philadelphia.
The brother arrested in Germany, 51-year-old Omelyan "Milo" Botsvynyuk, raped one of the victims and threatened to force the young daughter of another victim into prostitution, authorities charged.
The brothers housed the victims in deplorable conditions and insisted they work until they pay off smuggling debts of $10,000 to $50,000, prosecutors said. Some escaped despite threats to their families back home.
The investigation was conducted by the U.S. attorney's office, the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Interpol and other agencies.