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Two more indicted in Utah-related slavery case

Published January 18, 2011 3:45 pm

Crime • Some Thai nationals worked at farms near Milford.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Two more people have been indicted in what the Justice Department calls the largest U.S. human-trafficking case ever, which came to light with the help of Thais who say they escaped modern slavery in Utah and blew the whistle on the operation.

A federal grand jury in Honolulu last week returned indictments against Joseph Knoller and Bruce Schwartz, both of Los Angeles, as co-conspirators in a scheme to hold 400 Thai nationals in compelled service in Hawaii and throughout the nation.

On Sept. 1, six other officials of California-based labor recruiter Global Horizons were also indicted. They included the company's chief, Mordecai Orian, along with labor recruiters and supervisors Pranee Tubchumpol, Shane Germann, Sam Wongsesanit, Ratawan Chunharutai and Podjanee Sinchai.

The indictments say the defendants schemed from 2001 to 2007 to lure hundreds of Thai farm workers into slavery by using false promises, then using threats, intimidation and controls to hold them in service, often for little or no pay.

Workers interviewed last year by The Salt Lake Tribune said that Global Horizon recruiters offered them legal jobs in the United States that they said would pay in a month what it takes a year to earn in Thailand. But the jobs came with a big catch: They were told they would have to pay an upfront "recruitment fee" of about $24,000 each.

To pay it, workers had to mortgage their families' rice farms at loan rates of up to 800 percent. So workers knew that if they lost their jobs in America, their families would lose their farms.

They say Global Horizons used that to force them to work in squalid conditions. They said Global was also often late with pay, so workers sent home what little money they had to keep up with loan payments, which often left them unable to buy much to eat in the U.S.

Workers also said that when they arrived in America, Global Horizons took their passports for "safekeeping." That limited their freedom to move around the country or return home if they desired.

Several workers ended up at Circle Four hog farms in Utah. They said they had no problems with Circle Four, but Global Horizons once went seven weeks without paying them for work there. One worker managed to contact Utah Legal Services and persuaded attorneys there to look into their plight.

Thais at Circle Four eventually refused to work for lack of pay. Circle Four then called Global Horizons to ask what was happening with money it had been paying for salaries and was told simply that Global would no longer supply workers there. Circle Four then filed suit contending wages had not been paid to workers as promised.

Thai workers left in Utah were helped by Utah Legal Services to obtain "T-Visas" to stay and work in America as victims of human trafficking. The visas require them to work with law enforcement officials and testify about what happened to them in the case.

If convicted, Orian faces a maximum sentence of 135 years in prison. Others face maximum terms of five to 115 years. Of note, Sinchai was recently charged and convicted in Thailand with recruitment fraud.

To show how big the case is, it is being investigated by the Honolulu Division of the FBI, with the assistance of the FBI's Los Angeles, Norfolk, and Buffalo Divisions; Department of Homeland Security offices in Los Angeles, Utah and Washington state; and the State Department. Non-governmental organizations assisting the victims are the Thai Community Development Center, Utah Legal Services and Florida Rural Legal Services. —

The Utah connection

Several of the Thai workers who signed guest worker contracts with Global Horizons ended up with jobs at Circle Four hog farms near Milford. The employees contacted Utah Legal Services for help once they were stranded without work, income or basic necessities. Attorneys in Utah helped get the human trafficking case going against the employment recruiting company and its executives.