Freed Sex Slave Caught in Legal Bind 

Looking for Schwarzenegger pardon to save trafficking victim–turned–counselor Maria Suarez from deportation

Wednesday, Apr 11 2007
{mosimage}When Congress created laws mandating deportation of any noncitizen convicted of murder, it almost certainly did not have in mind the unique case of Maria Suarez, who made her way to Los Angeles from her Michoacán village when she was just 16, only to be enslaved two weeks later as an Azusa man’s private sex toy.

With her family in nearby Sierra Madre believing they had lost her forever, Suarez was brainwashed and dominated for nearly six years by her captor, Anselmo Covarrubias, until she helped cover up the 1981 killing of her tormentor by two neighbors, a husband and wife who went to prison for bludgeoning Covarrubias to death with a table leg.

Those many years ago, Suarez was touted by prosecutors as the mastermind of the murder, and the jury believed it. Represented by a green attorney who had no felony trial experience — and was himself facing trial for drug charges and later disbarred — Suarez was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder.

That was all a very long time ago, when she was a young woman who spoke no English. She served 22 years in the California Institution for Women, reaching middle age behind bars before being granted parole by then-Governor Gray Davis. She was then released from prison early by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — one of his earliest acts in office — but immediately was reincarcerated by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to face deportation, as required for noncitizens with aggravated-felony convictions. Finally, after a legal fight and political pressure from several lawmakers, Suarez was granted a special three-year T-visa, which allows sexual and other trafficking victims to remain in the United States under certain conditions.

When the still-beautiful Suarez at last walked free in May 2004, into the arms of waiting family, she collapsed on the ground in front of a horde of news reporters. After two decades in prison, the outside world had passed her by — she had no idea how to use a cell phone — and she had no idea how to deal with freedom. It was overwhelming. She still remembers that time “as a dream.”

Now, three years later, she is an educated, even sophisticated woman, a far cry from the witchcraft-believing and cowering village girl sold to the pedophile Covarrubias as his slave by a scheming Los Angeles–area cleaning lady — for the sum of $200.

Suarez today is a salaried, part-time counselor at About Face, a Koreatown-based counseling program for convicted sex felons under court order to get help, and a sought-after public speaker respected as a woman who has lived through a personal hell and understands the minds of abusers.

But while she has overcome hurdles so extreme and memories so dark that a woman with less fight might have lost her mind, Suarez’s most impossible battle may unfold in the next few weeks.

She and her pro bono lawyers at the Los Angeles offices of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) are challenging federal laws that require she be sent back to Mexico, a country she barely remembers. On May 7, her special T-visa expires.

“I am praying that I will be allowed to stay, to give something to American society, and to really live my life,” she tells the L.A. Weekly.

But without a pardon by Schwarzenegger, or a decision by the federal Board of Immigration Appeals to reduce the charges against her, she may be forced from her home and returned to Mexico like a hardcore criminal.

“I have so much I want to accomplish in Los Angeles, my home,” she says. “I have never learned to drive, and I would like to learn — does that sound silly? I love my work as a counselor, and I want very much to do it full time if someone could use me — and I think they could. I hope the governor knows what really happened to me, and I feel so honored by the attorneys and friends who are helping.”

Whate really happened to her is an almost unbelievable tale of servitude, abuse and control, which began when she left her mom’s house in Sierra Madre one day in 1976 to clean Covarrubias’ home — and was not allowed to leave again until he fully controlled her, convincing her that he was a witch doctor who could kill her family and burn down her family’s home.

TV producer Tina Malave, a former reporter for A Current Affair, and producer of shows such as Identity, has begun to co-write a book with Suarez about her life. “Imagine a child coming into a situation where you are told you were sold, and are raped by a man who is practicing horrible ‘witchcraft.’ The first thing he did, the first night she was there, was cut her fingernails and hair and turn them into little voodoo-type dolls. Her level of horror was extreme. He used many tricks to make her believe he had powers over her and her family.”

Among the most devastating arguments against her was the fact that each time her family begged her to leave his house, she insisted she was fine. When police were called in, she denied there was a problem. She was allowed for a time to hold a job, from which Covarrubias picked her up on a strict schedule, but she never tried to run.

“It’s hard to imagine today” that such testimony would go unchallenged, says Malave. “But it happened to Maria, and today we finally know that trafficking in humans is real.”

In recent years, the husband and wife convicted of murdering Covarrubias have both declared Suarez was innocent of planning his murder. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged, even by her former trial attorney, that she suffered from incompetent legal representation. (For instance, no expert witnesses were called to testify to Suarez’s state of mind.)

Yet Suarez, whose warm smile and charm are so incongruous with her past, says, “I don’t look back and ask, ‘What if?’ I don’t blame the jury or the system. I am happy and I have a good life. I worry about things like having health insurance — which I do not.”

And now she worries about deportation. Charles Song, one of two attorneys at CAST who successfully kept her from being deported in 2004 after her release from prison, told the Weekly that he cannot discuss the “multipronged legal strategy” he is currently pressing in an effort to keep Suarez in Los Angeles. However, Aaron McLear, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, says it’s not going to be as simple as getting a pardon from the California governor alone.

“A pardon is the only action the governor can take,” he tells the Weekly. “And even if he does that, it is still up to the feds to decide if it will be honored. This is what our legal advisers are telling us. Even if it is an unconditional pardon [from the governor], it is up to the federal government to decide whether she will be deported.”

To that end, McLear says, “We have no idea and can’t speculate on what the governor might do. We are still reviewing it.”

There is ample precedent for California governors from both sides of the political aisle granting pardons to convicted murderers.

Former Republican Governor Ronald Reagan granted 40 such pardons, and former Democratic Governor Jerry Brown granted seven. Other recent governors granted pardons as well. Yet it’s always a political hot potato. Last year, during Brown’s successful run for California attorney general, he was excoriated in campaign ads for pardoning murderers in the 1970s and ’80s.

When queried for a story by The Wall Street Journal about his pardons, Brown dug them out of his archives and stood by them, noting that each case had mitigating factors: He pardoned one murderer after a recommendation by the victim’s own family, for example, and another after the man turned his life around and dedicated himself to volunteerism.

In Suarez’s case, mitigating factors abound. She is believed by some experts to be the first documented case of modern-day sex slavery inside the U.S., suggesting that the legal system simply was not ready for such a story.

Now, producer Malave is organizing a fund-raising event later this year in hopes of gathering seed money for a counseling center that would focus on victims of human trafficking — and employ Suarez. “I cannot imagine anyone better than Maria at helping victims like that,” she says, “but now we have to make sure she’s around to do this work.”
click to enlarge Awaiting word: Former convict Maria Suarez, now a counselor of sex felons, faces one final obstacle to finally being free. (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)
  • Awaiting word: Former convict Maria Suarez, now a counselor of sex felons, faces one final obstacle to finally being free. (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)

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Reach the writer at jstewart@laweekly.com

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