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South Dakota Hotel Owners Sentenced for Involuntary Servitude Offenses

WASHINGTON – Robert John Farrell and his wife, Angelita Magat Farrell, owners of a Comfort Inn & Suites hotel in Oacoma, S.D., were sentenced on Friday, Feb. 22, in federal court in Pierre, S.D., for peonage, document servitude, visa fraud, making false statements and conspiracy, the Justice Department announced. Robert John Farrell was sentenced to 50 months of imprisonment. Angelita Magat Farrell was sentenced to 36 months of imprisonment. Each defendant also was ordered to pay a $15,000 fine and will be placed on three years of supervised release following their respective prison terms. Peonage is a condition of involuntary servitude imposed to extract repayment of an indebtedness.

In November 2007, a federal jury convicted the Farrells after hearing from four victims who had been held in involuntary servitude by the Farrells. After committing visa fraud to bring Philippine workers into the United States, the Farrells then enslaved the workers to perform cleaning and front desk duties at their hotel. During the trial, the victims described how the Farrells controlled every aspect of the victims’ lives, including what they ate, where they lived, and the hours they worked.

The victims described regularly working 16- to 18-hour days. When they finished their duties at the defendants’ hotel, the victims were then expected to work a second job at local fast food restaurants. One victim testified that she tried to join a Christmas choir, but the defendants told her that her first duty was to pay them back and that she could not spare two hours a week for choir practice. The Farrells hid their activities by issuing the victims paychecks, which the Farrells then required the victims to endorse and return to the Farrells. The victims testified that they had hoped to send money back to their children and families in the Philippines.

The jury also heard evidence that the Farrells tried to isolate the victims and prevent them from meeting people who might have helped them escape. The Farrells required the Philippine victims to attend late-night debt meetings that lasted into the early morning hours. At the meetings, the Farrells would yell at the workers and berate them for their ungratefulness for all the Farrells had done to “help” them.

“Too often individuals prey on immigrants who are brought into the United States, thousands of miles from home, and unaware of their rights under the U.S. legal system. If this kind of involuntary servitude can take place at a motel in the heart of middle America, it can happen just about anywhere,” said Grace Chung Becker, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The Justice Department is committed to prosecuting those who exploit victims lured into this country with false promises of a better life.”

“The jury’s verdict and the court’s sentence combine to reinforce the value placed on protecting human dignity from those who engage in exploitation for their own personal and commercial gain,” said Marty J. Jackley, U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to enforcing federal law aimed to protect our society from the scourge of modern-day slavery.”

Human trafficking prosecutions such as this one are a top priority of the Department of Justice. In the last seven fiscal years, the Civil Rights Division, in conjunction with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, has increased by nearly seven-fold the number of human trafficking cases filed in court as compared to the previous seven fiscal years. In FY 2007, the Department obtained a record number of convictions in human trafficking prosecutions.

Civil Rights Division Trial Attorney Michael J. Frank and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Koliner prosecuted this case for the government. The investigation was spearheaded by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Craig M. Scherer.