Man pleads guilty in human trafficking case

By Bill Draper
Associated Press Writer / October 20, 2010

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KANSAS CITY, Mo.—A man from Uzbekistan who was accused of running a 14-state human trafficking ring in Kansas City has pleaded guilty to four charges under a plea agreement in which he will serve at least 10 years in federal prison.

Abrorkhodja Askarkhodjaev, 31, was facing more than 100 counts related to a scheme to lure foreigners to Kansas City with the promise of good jobs and a better life, but instead turned them into slave workers who were threatened with having their temporary visas pulled or having harm done to their families.

The enterprise illegally made more than $6 million, prosecutors said.

Opening statements in Askarkhodjaev's trial had been set to start Wednesday, but he decided to change his plea after a jury had been selected. During a recess of several hours prosecutors worked up the plea bargain.

Askarkhodjaev entered his plea late Wednesday -- after fainting while standing in front of U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith. He was taken from the courtroom, but brought back to continue the plea hearing about 20 minutes later after receiving nourishment.

He pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy, one count of fraud in foreign labor contracting, one count of identity theft and one count of evasion of corporate income tax. As part of the plea, he will serve at least 10 years in prison and up to 12 years if he doesn't cooperate with the government in future proceedings.

"Abror is pleased to have this case resolved," his attorney, Willie Epps Jr., told The Associated Press after the hearing. "He's very sorry for the people he hurt, and he's praying for those individuals and their families. He hopes in time he will be forgiven."

Eleven other people were charged with being involved in the ring, which was prosecuted under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Act, or RICO, most commonly associated with organized crime cases. Eight of those defendants pleaded guilty, two fled the country and haven't been brought back to face the charges, and one is scheduled to go to trial on Monday.

Askarkhodjaev owned and operated Giant Labor, a labor-leasing company, and controlled a dozen other businesses that filed fraudulent applications for foreign workers. The other defendants held positions with Giant Labor or the other companies, according to the indictment.

Members of the ring, which operated from 2001 until the spring of 2009, used false identification to create the companies and open dozens of bank accounts for them, prosecutors said.

The workers, mainly from the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, paid thousands of dollars to have Giant Labor bring them to the U.S. and get them temporary visas. But once they arrived, they were stuck in small, sparsely furnished apartments, had no access to their mail and were charged so many fees that sometimes instead of getting paid on payday, they owed the company money.

Prosecutors said the workers became trapped because they couldn't afford to leave, and those who did try to get out were threatened with legal action or told harm would come to their families.

Giant Labor, Crystal Management Inc. and Five Star Cleaning applied for more than 1,000 fraudulent work visas without being required to identify who would be using them, prosecutors said.

Once the visas were approved and the workers arrived in Kansas City, Giant Labor used them to fill labor contracts in Missouri, Kansas, Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, South Carolina and Wyoming, prosecutors said.

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