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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Eastern District of North Carolina

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, March 4, 2021

Two Fayetteville Residents Arrested on Alien Smuggling for Commercial Advantage, Forced Labor, and Money Laundering Charges

RALEIGH, N.C. – Two Fayetteville residents were arrested on charges within an Indictment returned by a federal grand jury and relating to violations of conspiracy to smuggle, transport and harbor aliens for commercial advantage or private financial gain, conspiracy to commit forced labor, and money laundering. 

According to the forty-two (42) count indictment, Martha Zelaya-Mejia, age 37, a permanent resident of the United States, born in Honduras, and David Darnell Whitehead, age 42, a United States citizen, conspired with others to smuggle four Honduran females and their minor children from Honduras, through Mexico into the United States for commercial advantage and private financial gain.  Once the Honduran females were in the U.S. Zelaya-Mejia, Whitehead and others transported, harbored, and placed them into the residence of an individual residing in Willard, North Carolina in order to obtain the labor and services by means of force, threat, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint to the Honduran females.

On August 9, 2019, the Pender County Sheriff’s Office responded to a 911 call from one of the Honduran females that was placed at the Willard residence stating that she was not free to leave and was being held against her will, and tased by the owner of the residence.

In order to smuggle the females into the U.S. Zelaya-Mejia, Whitehead and others involved in the conspiracy transmitted thousands of dollars in various wire transfers from locations in the Eastern District of North Carolina to Honduras, Mexico and areas located on the US – Mexican border to smugglers.

If convicted of conspiracy to smuggle, transport, and conceal aliens, Zelaya-Mejia, and Whitehead face up to a maximum imprisonment of 10 years per count, a $250,000 fine, and a term of supervised release following any term of imprisonment.  If convicted of conspiracy and forced labor, they face up to a maximum imprisonment of 20 years imprisonment, $250,000 fine and a term of supervised release following any term of imprisonment.  If convicted of conspiracy and money laundering, they face up to a maximum term of 20 years imprisonment, $500,000 fine and a term of supervised release following any term of imprisonment.

G. Norman Acker, III, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina said, “Human smugglers, time and time again, prove the they have little regard for human life. Travelling from Honduras through Mexico into the US with small children, poses immense dangers from smugglers, gangs, and cartels that are only interested in their personal financial gain.  This office will continue to aggressively prosecute those organizations that are operating in the Eastern District and deter criminals that choose to take advantage of those that are most vulnerable.”

“The arrests will bring an end to the reign of terror that these two predators inflicted on their victims. Human smuggling is akin to modern day slavery and the perpetrators of this evil do tremendous physical and mental damage to their victims,” said Special Agent in Charge Ronnie Martinez, who oversees Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) operations in North Carolina. "Having these two off the street is a small step in making this country safer and we will continue our relentless pursuit of any and all who would choose to follow in their path.”

G. Norman Acker, III, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina made the announcement. Agents with Homeland Security Investigations, Pender County Sheriff’s Office, and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office Organized Crime Unit are investigating the case and Assistant U.S. Attorney Gabriel Diaz is prosecuting the case.

Related court documents and information are located on the website of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina or on PACER by searching for Case No.7:20-CR-191.

An indictment is merely an accusation. The defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Topic(s): 
Human Smuggling
Updated March 4, 2021