By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
For someone with no money, no education, no special skills and no family in the United States, it is next to impossible to enter and remain in the country by legal means. Agnes, naturally, jumps at the chance.
She flies to Manila. For two months she lives with Rudolfo “Duden” Demafeliz in his apartment. He teaches her tae kwon do. The 30-something Duden pays for all her expenses. Soon Agnes receives her (fake) black-belt certificate. When the day to go to the U.S. Embassy arrives, Duden gives her a questionnaire containing the likely questions embassy officials will ask — and the corresponding answers she should give. Fourteen other prospective tae kwon do “athletes” go with them, but only five pass muster. Agnes is one of them. She has a genuine United States visa now.
Soon comes the China Airlines flight to Los Angeles. Upon their arrival at Los Angeles International Airport, Duden takes her passport, “for safekeeping,” she recalls. Perhaps to quell her growing suspicions, Agnes tells him that she is eager to work, and Duden jokingly replies that she should not be in such a rush because she is going to be a “prisoner” once she begins working for Pelayo. Whether Agnes regrets coming to the States at this point is unclear. En route to the Long Beach house, Duden gives Agnes strict instructions: Never trust anyone. Never speak to the family members of the elders you’ll be caring for. Avoid personal conversations with your co-workers.
Pelayo, who ought to have been a familiar, welcoming face to a stranger in a strange land, a connection to home, instead greets Agnes with a warning: There will be “severe consequences” if she ever tries to stop working for her by running away. Among the consequences: Pelayo will falsely accuse Agnes of stealing property if she tries to escape. Police will put her in jail for a long time, and then deport her. Pelayo will deny knowing her. If Agnes tries to report Pelayo, the authorities will believe Pelayo because she is a U.S. citizen, and Agnes is not.
“In this business you have to cheat,” Pelayo tells Agnes. “If you follow the rules here, you will suffer. You will never make money. That’s why you have to break all the rules regarding insurance, payroll. ... Everyone [who] works for me does not have their papers.”
And so, the nightmare scenario ensues. For three years, beginning in October of 2005, Agnes labors inside the confines of the house on Vernon Street with five other illegal Filipino workers. “You cannot leave me,” Agnes recalls Pelayo saying. “After 10 years, maybe you can go home. I don’t want you to stab me in the back.”
Like a sick joke, the nightmare recurs. On May 21, 2007, another illegal alien, identified only as “J.D.” in the court records, arrives on Vernon Street, again by way of the tae kwon do ruse. She is promised $600 a month, minus a $300 monthly smuggling fee. Like Agnes, J.D. is ordered to work for Pelayo for 10 years. She cannot work for anyone else. She cannot leave the house without permission, or at night. She works 24-hour days, doing construction during the day, and caring for the elders at night. J.D. does not sleep much. When she does, it is on a sofa in the kitchen.
After nine months, in February 2008, J.D. escapes. Agnes has tried escaping as well. Each time, Pelayo and her husband, Darwin, get in separate cars to search the neighborhood for them, as if going after a dog who has strayed. But where can they escape? The man next door offers to take them in and let them stay in his mobile home, but perhaps out of fear that they’ll be discovered so close to their prison, they decline his help. Instead, they return to their captors, having no place else to go. “It is just like you stole from me,” Pelayo tells them when they turn up. “Because ... you ran away. You didn’t say goodbye. You know that you have a debt. You ran away.”
The man next door gets through to the FBI shortly before J.D.’s arrival at the eldercare facility. The Feds promptly enlist the young women in an operation to collect evidence. They throw incriminating documents over the wood fence of their neighbor’s house in plastic Target shopping bags. They sneak over to his house, sitting around the dining-room table with federal agents.
The raid occurs in the early hours of April 3, 2008. “It’s going down,” the neighbor’s contact at the FBI says, giving him the thumbs-up. Cars from every imaginable agency line up on the street and stay there for the entire day. FBI agents seize journals, ledgers and credit-card receipts. Driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, passports and foreign ID cards. Letters, post cards and jewelry. Duffel bags, suitcases and bank statements. Keys, address books and appointment books. Phone and utility bills, photographs, videotapes and cell phones. Evidence pours out of the house.
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