One December morning, a 49-year-old Hungarian named Sandor Simon was at a Hamilton welfare office when he became agitated, saying he was terrified of the people he was living with and wanted to escape.
Staff knew an RCMP constable, Lepa Jankovic, was investigating suspicious activity involving Hungarian nationals, so they called her. When she arrived, Mr. Simon was hunched over with his arms in his lap, in a full sweat, his hat curled up in his hand.
Constable Jankovic, 41, drove him back to her office, stopping to buy him a coffee and a pack of cigarettes. He warmed to her quickly.
Through a translator, he told the story: A man in his home country promised a high-paying job in the stucco industry if he would move to Canada. But when he arrived, he was confined to a basement with three other men and, he learned, would be forced to work long hours for no pay.
Constable Jankovic knew she was on to something. She was about to unravel the largest-known human-trafficking ring in Canadian history, exposing a Hungarian crime family that made men work as slaves on construction sites. Despite its size, the entire operation would be busted by just two tenacious RCMP officers, an aggressive Crown attorney, a couple of investigators from other agencies and a non-governmental organization.
Her very life was on the line: At one point, a hit man was hired to kill the investigators on the case.
THE CASE BEGINS
In September of 2009, Customs and Border Services Agency officer Deb Kerr called Constable Jankovic to a meeting: An unusual number of Hungarians, Ms. Kerr told her, were living at just a handful of addresses. Intrigued, Constable Jankovic spoke with welfare fraud investigator Gary Brown, who’d noticed a similar pattern.
She learned from Hamilton police that, the previous spring, four Hungarian men had alleged they were forced to work for no pay by a businessman named Ferenc Domotor. But the victims eventually went back to Mr. Domotor’s house – there was nothing officers could do.
Then, three days before Christmas, the welfare office called.
At 6-foot-1, Constable Jankovic cuts an imposing figure that belies her sunny disposition. This warmth helped her build a rapport with Mr. Simon.
“You could tell he was scared,” she recalls. “He didn’t have a dollar on him, he didn’t have a suitcase, he had nothing.”
The morning after interviewing him, she scoped out the house where Mr. Simon had been kept. She was parked outside when a man stepped onto the porch for a smoke. She walked over and identified herself, but the man, who spoke no English, didn’t understand. “Police! Come with me!” she called. Noticing two other men peeking out from the basement window, she shouted their friend’s name: “Sandor! Sandor!” Then, they understood.
At the RCMP office, all three gave statements, confirming they were victims of a human-trafficking ring.
As the investigation grew, Constable Husam Farah was assigned. A 33-year-old with a youthful look and the exuberance to match, Constable Farah started processing the evidence Constable Jankovic had collected. He barely had time to catch up when the next victim came forward.
One cold, January night, a young man named David Bogdan escaped from Ferenc Domotor’s home and went to police. Around the same time, a contractor called Constable Jankovic to tell her about Tamas Miko, a young man working on one of his job sites, and also living in Mr. Domotor’s basement.
Around 6 a.m. on Jan. 6, 2010, Constable Jankovic and several officers went to Ferenc Domotor’s newly built monster home in the Hamilton suburb of Ancaster. When the contractor arrived in a white truck and picked Mr. Miko up for work, they boxed in his vehicle. Constable Jankovic approached the passenger side. Reading from a piece of paper, she told Mr. Miko in Hungarian: “I will take you to a safe place. You do not have to stay here. I am Canadian police.”
Mr. Miko was surprised. The contractor pushed him towards the door, shouting “Go! Go! Go!” The officers bundled Mr. Miko into Constable Jankovic’s van.
Next, they knocked on the door, hoping to retrieve his belongings. For the first time, Constable Jankovic came face-to-face with the man she would later discover was the trafficking ring’s leader. Ferenc Domotor and his family were courteous and accommodating.