PHILADELPHIA – In a rare human-trafficking case going to trial on Monday, federal prosecutors accuse a group of Ukranians of luring desperate young people to the United States and forcing them into bondage cleaning Targets, Walmarts and other retail and office buildings.
Life in America paled in comparison to the $500 a month and free room and board they'd been promised, authorities said.
Instead, the Botsvynyuk (bots-VIN'-yuk) brothers allegedly paid little or nothing to crews laboring 16 hours a day, and threatened to harm them or their families if they fought the demands.
Investigators don't accuse the retailers of wrongdoing, noting that they usually hire cleaning crews through subcontractors.
"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 in announcing the charges last year. "No one trying to immigrate to this country should have to endure such mistreatment."
Only Omelyan "Milo" Botsvynyuk, 52, and his 36-year-old brother Stepan are on trial. Brother Mykhaylo Botsvynyuk and Yaroslav Churuk are fighting extradition from Canada, while the fifth brother has died.
Defense lawyer Joshua Briskin calls the charges serious — and vows to fight them. He says the brothers were acquitted in a related case in the Ukraine.
More often in the U.S., human trafficking cases involve sex workers. The Justice Department reports that 82 percent of the cases investigated from 2008 to 2010 involved sex trafficking, half of which involved victims under 18. Only about 10 percent involved the labor trafficking at the heart of the Botsvynyuk case.
Federal investigators opened 2,515 suspected trafficking cases during the three-year period, the report said. However, authorities actively pursue only a fraction of them, perhaps 60 a year, officials have said.
The Botsvynyuk brothers allegedly lured about 30 victims from Ukraine from 2000 to 2007, smuggling them to Philadelphia through Mexico.
The brothers housed the victims in deplorable conditions and insisted they work for years until they pay off smuggling debts of $10,000 to $50,000, prosecutors said. Some escaped despite the threats.
Authorities also accuse Omelyan Botsvynyuk of raping one of the victims and threatening to force the young daughter of another victim into prostitution back home.
An overseas tip sparked the investigation in 2005, but authorities said it took time to overcome language and trust barriers as they worked with the victims. The victims, some of whom will testify, include young Ukrainian men eager for work after finishing military service and a woman who was told her young daughter would be forced into prostitution in the Ukraine if she fled, the FBI said.
Omelyan Botsvynyuk's wife wrote a letter to the trial judge complaining that her husband had not only been "exonerated" of the charges by the Supreme Court of Ukraine, but had been compensated for the 33 months he spent in custody.
"He became a victim to the lies and multiple false statements made by one family from Ukraine in order for them to receive a political asylum in United States of America," Larissa Lindt-Botsvynyuk of Berlin wrote to U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond this summer.
Stepan Botsvynyuk's wife, Nataliia Trufyn Botsvynyuk, wrote her own letter a month later, seeking leniency and insisting her husband was not only innocent, but "a person with high moral standards."
And in another unusual letter in the court file, a Camden, N.J., lawyer wrote to Diamond on Sept. 7 saying Omelyan Botsvynyuk wanted him to represent him, and that the client "is willing to accept responsibility and take a plea."
Briskin dismissed the claims, and jury selection went on as scheduled last week. The U.S. District Court jury is set to hear opening statements Monday morning.
The claim about asylum, though, may become a hot trial issue.
"Several of the witnesses have cooperated with the government partly in the hopes that they will eventually receive T-Visas, special visas created for victims of trafficking," the government conceded in its pretrial memo.
And the Botsvynyuks are expected to argue that they themselves fear violence and persecution in the Ukraine.
The government expects Omelyan Botsvynyuk, if he testifies, to air his claims that he has been attacked by a gang that included government operatives, and that the criminals pulled out his gold teeth and poured scalding water on his lap, leading to his extended hospitalization.
"Assuming these facts are accurate, they nevertheless are unrelated to anything involving the victims in this case or the indictment," prosecutors wrote.
Prosecutors argue that such testimony would be inflammatory.
The trial is expected to take 25 to 30 court days, in part because of the need to translate testimony.
The investigation was conducted by the U.S. attorney's office, the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Interpol and other agencies.