A Hungarian crime family ran the largest human-trafficking ring in Canadian history, bringing people from their home country to work for no pay on Ontario construction sites, buying and selling some for a few thousand dollars a head, and using them as household servants.
The case, which has seen the toughest-ever sentence handed down for the crime, will reach its denouement Tuesday, when the scheme’s kingpin, Ferenc Domotor, learns his fate in a Hamilton court.
Human trafficking – coercing people into forced labour – is a major global problem. Various United Nations estimates in recent years have pegged the number of people under traffickers' control in the millions. And Canada has taken a tough posture on the crime. The government added it to the Criminal Code in 2005 and, in February, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney tabled legislation designed to tighten up the refugee system Mr. Domotor and his associates used to bring in their victims. But, with just a handful of Canadian human-trafficking convictions in the last seven years, this prosecution represents some of the strongest, most tangible action this country has taken against the scourge.
The Domotor criminal organization, as police dub the family, entered Canada inauspiciously enough. Mr. Domotor, 49, and his younger brother, Gyula, were facing extortion charges in Hungary when they arrived in Canada in 1998. Both men settled with their families in Hamilton, the industrial city of half a million people west of Toronto, and got into the stucco business.
Save for a shoplifting conviction in 2001 – Ferenc Domotor and his wife, Gyongi Kolompar, took some sweaters from a Sears outlet– he largely flew under the radar. In 2008, when Canada loosened visa requirements for Hungarian citizens, Mr. Domotor’s brothers, sisters and in-laws joined him.
Then came a steady flow of slaves. Family members and associates in Hungary recruited unemployed men from Papa, the town of 33,000 where the Domotors are from, promising them good jobs paying thousands of dollars a month in Canada.
To Tamas Miko, the offer sounded pretty good. He had spent months looking for a steady job after the cable factory he worked at closed down, when an acquaintance put him in touch with Mr. Domotor. The family bought him a plane ticket and, in August of 2009, he flew to Pearson International Airport.
When he arrived, Mr. Domotor’s wife took his passport and the couple drove him to their home on a quiet side street in the suburb of Ancaster. There, he was told he would sleep on a mattress on the floor of the basement, with six other men.
It was one of them who told Mr. Miko that the promises of a better life were not going to come true.
The men woke up before six o’clock every morning to be shuttled to work sites. On a typical day, Mr. Miko said, he didn’t finish until 11 p.m. or later. He was fed only one meal a day. Escape was impossible: The windows and doors of the house were alarmed and, in any case, Mr. Miko had nowhere to go. He didn’t speak English and the family had his documents.
“I was just thinking, ‘Why did I come here?’” recalls Mr. Miko, a friendly 24-year-old with a boyish look and an easygoing manner. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Mr. Domotor, he says, told him he had to pay off the cost of his flight, plus a 600,000 forint "fee" (about $2,700) the family paid its associates in Hungary for recruiting him. It was a similar story for other workers. Some of them toiled for more than two years, living in the basements of six gang members’ homes, without ever paying down their “debt.”
Some victims worked directly for the organization’s stucco businesses, while others were farmed out to different companies, including a lumber yard and a tiling contractor. They were ordered to make fraudulent welfare claims and set up bank accounts. Gang members took their debit cards.
Adding insult to injury, many were made to clean their captors’ homes. The gang’s only known female victim, Erzsebet Szailaine Ban, was used as an unpaid maid by Mr. Domotor’s brother Jozsef, cleaning his car and taking care of his young daughter.
To keep them in line, Mr. Domotor and his relatives shouted at and threatened their workers.
In a statement to the RCMP, victim David Bogdan described a day in the summer of 2008, when Mr. Domotor beat three of his workers at a job site, shouting that they were causing him stress. The encounter left Mr. Bogdan with a cut mouth and a bloody ear.
Another worker, Janos Farkas, told police Attila Kolompar, Mr. Domotor’s brother-in-law, once slapped him in the face because he wasn’t working fast enough. The blow knocked off his glasses and, when Mr. Farkas stooped to pick them up, Mr. Kolompar hit him again.
Gang members, meanwhile, lived the high life. In the fall of 2009, Ferenc and Gyula Domotor moved into new houses, each worth nearly $500,000, down the street from each other in Ancaster. The younger Mr. Domotor drove a black Mercedes and paid for a family cruise with cash. On bank documents, Ferenc Domotor’s oldest son – then aged 19 – listed his gross annual income as $142,000.
In December of 2009, one of the workers blew the lid on the scheme. Sandor Simon, a 51-year-old living in the basement of Mr. Kolompar’s sister, had arrived just two weeks earlier. When they took him to the welfare office, he told officials what was going on.
Around the same time, Mr. Miko told a contractor at the job site he was working on about what was happening, and the man called the RCMP.
Early one January morning, the contractor came to pick Mr. Miko up for work. As they sat in his car, the police arrived, he recounts. RCMP Constable Lepa Jankovic walked up to the vehicle and, reading from a piece of paper, told Mr. Miko in Hungarian: “I can take you to a safe place.”
“I was surprised and I asked [the contractor]what to do. He said ‘Go, go, go!’” Mr. Miko recalls. He was taken to a shelter in St. Catharines, along with several other workers.
But even after they escaped, the organization tracked them down. Over the following weeks, police moved victims from safe house to safe house but, wherever they went, the Domotors and their associates seemed to be able to find them. One victim told of being approached by Mr. Domotor’s cousin while he was smoking outside a shelter. She grabbed his arm and pulled him toward a car. Ms. Ban and her husband told police that a teenaged gang member called them up and threatened to slash their throats.
The Domotors’ relatives in Hungary offered to pay Mr. Miko’s family if he would withdraw his testimony. When they refused, Mr. Miko’s father said in a written account, they called repeatedly and showed up at his house, threatening to kill Mr. Miko. Things got so bad that Mr. Miko’s family eventually fled their home in the middle of the night. Police drove them to Budapest, where an NGO flew them to Canada.
Over the course of the next year, even as police investigated, the Domotor organization continued to bring workers into the country and even branched into a new type of crime: tipping over Canada Post boxes at night and rooting through the mail to steal and cash cheques.
In October of 2010, the RCMP charged nine people with human trafficking and busted up the scheme.
Since August of this year, 12 gang members have pleaded guilty. Eight of them have been convicted of conspiracy to traffic humans. Gyula Domotor, described as his older brother’s second-in-command, was last week sentenced to 7½ years in prison, Canada’s stiffest-ever sentence for the crime. On Tuesday, Ferenc Domotor and his wife will return to court, along with their oldest son, also named Ferenc, to be sentenced.
As for Mr. Miko, things haven’t always been easy since he was freed – at one point, he worked under-the-table as a dishwasher in an Indian restaurant, earning just $25 for a 14-hour shift – but he has started to move on. He’s become fluent in English, applied for landed immigrant status and found steady work cleaning hotel rooms. He’s hoping to move out of his current digs in a motel and find an apartment.
If Canada lets him stay, he has already decided what he wants to do with his life: become a police officer.