LOS ANGELES - Three people have been charged in an investigation by the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) into a scheme involving Filipino nationals who were brought into the United States and forced to work in two local residential elder care facilities.
The three defendants were arrested by federal agents yesterday on criminal complaints filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles earlier this week. According to the complaints, the victims were recruited with promises of employment in the United States, then forced to work to pay their "travel expenses."
Rodolfo Demafeliz, 39, and his assistant, Rolleta Riazon, 28, both Philippine nationals, were arrested yesterday morning prior to boarding a flight to Manila. They are accused of transporting the victims to the United States in connection as part of the harboring scheme.
Evelyn Pelayo, 51, a resident of Long Beach, Calif., was also arrested yesterday. Pelayo owns two residences in Long Beach where she operated elderly care and boarding facilities. Pelayo made her initial appearance in court here yesterday afternoon and is being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles pending the continuance of her detention hearing April 8.
According to the complaint, Pelayo allegedly recruited potential workers in the Philippines, promising them jobs in her elder care facilities. Once the victims agreed, Pelayo contacted Rodolfo Demafeliz, a Taekwondo martial arts instructor. Demafeliz would enter the "students" in American Taekwondo tournaments as a ruse to bring them to the United States. Demafeliz obtained visas for the victims and provided them with limited martial arts training to make the visas appear legitimate. There is no evidence that any of the victims ever participated in any tournaments in the United States.
During the course of the investigation, agents identified three victims who were working at the two elderly care facilities; three additional workers were found yesterday during the execution of the search warrants. According to the complaints, the victims were forced to work nearly 24 hours a day and told it would take several years for them to repay their travel debts. Pelayo allegedly held the victims' passports and verbally abused them, threatening to contact police and immigration officials if they tried to escape. Pelayo also instructed the victims to lie about the number of hours they worked when questioned by Department of Social Services officials, who monitor the homes for the elderly.
"The luring of persons into the United States on the promise of legitimate work and a better life, only to be held in what is, essentially, modern-day slavery is, regrettably, taking place in our community," said Salvador Hernandez, assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles. "The charges allege that these victims were forced into debt bondage under threat of arrest or deportation, so the defendants could profit. The Human Trafficking Task Force in Los Angeles will continue its efforts to dismantle trafficking organizations and raise awareness of the problem within the law enforcement community and among the public."
The two elder care homes were closed down yesterday, following the execution of the federal search warrants. A total of 10 elderly patients were rescued and moved to legitimate facilities. In addition to agents with the FBI and ICE, multiple state agencies assisted with yesterday's operation. Those agencies include, Community Care Licensing, the Long Term Care Ombudsman, Adult Protective Services, the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, and the Long Beach Police Department. The FBI's Victim Assistance Program will be working with the residents and families to find alternative elder care facilities. A registered nurse was available at each facility to monitor the medical care of each person during this transition. The victims have been placed in various shelters.
"Forced servitude is an unconscionable crime and, as this case shows, it can take many forms," said Robert Schoch, special agent in charge for the ICE Office of Investigations in Los Angeles."Holding people against their will and making them work under inhumane conditions amounts to modern day slavery. ICE is working closely with the FBI and its other law enforcement partners to ensure that crimes like these do not go unchecked or unpunished."
Demafeliz and Riazon are being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles. They are scheduled to make their initial appearance in U.S. District Court today.
The FBI, ICE, and the United States Attorney's Office are partners on the Los Human Trafficking Task Force. The Los Angeles Task Force has established a toll-free hotline for victims and individuals to use to report information on trafficking activity. The hotline number is - 1-800-655-4095. Information may be provided anonymously and will be kept confidential.
This case is being prosecuted by a Department of Justice Trial Attorney for the Civil Rights Division; Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit in Washington, D.C.