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.
Tamas's documents? Here they are. Want to speak with the men downstairs? No problem.
The basement was partitioned into a common area and two unfinished, 10-by-11-foot bedrooms. Each room had three or four mattresses crammed in on the concrete floor.
When Constable Jankovic descended the stairs, there were four men sitting there in their work clothes. She explained she was a police officer and they could come with her, but the men sat frozen and said nothing.
Police took Mr. Miko to a St. Catharines shelter, where he was reunited with Mr. Bogdan and met several other victims.
"Tamas saw David immediately, walked over and hugged him like he hadn't seen him in a year or two," recalls Constable Farah. "They all greeted each other as though, not knowing each other, they'd been through some kind of trauma."
THE CRIME WEB
Over the following weeks, more victims contacted police, fleeing the houses of two other men, Ferenc Karadi and Attila Kolompar.
The RCMP pieced together the ties that bound the traffickers. They were all related to Ferenc Domotor. Mr. Kolompar is his brother-in-law; Mr. Karadi his cousin and Eva Kolompar, Attila's sister and Mr. Simon's captor, is married to Lajos Domotor, whose son-in-law is Ferenc Domotor's nephew.
Soon, there was enough evidence to get search warrants for the homes. A justice of the peace signed off on them on Feb. 3; that evening, Constable Jankovic assembled more than 20 officers and briefed them on the case.
The next morning, at 7 a.m., they carried out simultaneous raids on three houses.
In Ferenc Domotor's bedroom, they hit the jackpot: Neatly arranged in a dresser drawer were immigration documents, work permits, debit cards and chequebooks – all in the names of Mr. Domotor's victims. There were also six blank invitation letters, already signed by a notary public, that he could use to bring over anyone he wanted.
At Mr. Karadi's home, Constable Farah and his team found the documents hidden under the mattress in the master bedroom. They also discovered two more men in the basement.
Mr. Domotor, Mr. Karadi and Mr. Kolompar were arrested on immigration charges and released on bail. Over the next few months, Constable Jankovic tracked down more victims, Constable Farah and Fern Puzzo, a civilian RCMP employee, organized the evidence and followed the paper trails. The documents showed how each victim was brought to Canada, from the letter of invitation to the airline ticket to their refugee claims.
Meanwhile, they enlisted the help of Timea Nagy, a member of a human-trafficking NGO, to help take care of the victims. She went to see them daily, taking the men to immigration offices to sort out their status and helping them open bank accounts. Ms. Nagy spent thousands of dollars out of her own pocket to buy the men clothes, haircuts and phone cards so they could speak with their families back home.
"It just didn't stop for seven months. There wasn't a month that went by when there wasn't a new victim that came forward," Ms. Nagy says.
On numerous occasions, the traffickers found where the victims were living and they had to be moved to from shelter to shelter.
By the fall, the RCMP had enough evidence to charge nine people with human trafficking. At first, there was some debate: On major cases, the Crown will often prosecute just two or three top players to keep the file simple. But the Mounties felt strongly about this one and eventually, they won out. On Oct. 6, 2010, it was official.
THE LEGAL STRATEGY
Crown attorney Antonio (Toni) Skarica is in his late 50s, has wavy brown hair and wears a pair of small spectacles perched on his nose. At John Sopinka Courthouse, a stately art deco building on Main Street, he is known for his penchant for fiery rhetoric both inside and outside court.
One day in October, 2010, he was chatting with a fellow Crown who was prosecuting the Domotor case at the time.
"I just remember seeing a bunch of boxes in one my colleague's office and I heard that these charges had been laid," Mr. Skarica recalls. "It looked interesting and challenging and I volunteered to do it."
That was on a Friday. Ferenc Domotor's bail hearing was Monday. Constable Farah arrived 15 minutes late –earning a rebuke from Mr. Skarica, whom he had never met before. With little court experience, the officer choked under cross-examination and Mr. Domotor was granted bail.
Despite this setback, Mr. Skarica decided the charges were so serious, he would oppose bail for everyone who was arrested.
"It's easy to do something when you know you're going to win," he told Constable Farah at the time. "The measure of a person is knowing you're going to lose but still fighting for what's right."
The officer grew more comfortable in the witness box and started arming the prosecutor with more evidence. By the end, they built a five-inch-thick binder – what Mr. Skarica called their "Abrams tank" – to present at every hearing.
One more family member, Ferenc Jr., got bail. The others remained in custody. The hearings convinced Mr. Skarica there was enough evidence to beef up the charges. This wasn't simply a few people breaking the law, he decided, this was a full-blown criminal organization.
In November, Mr. Skarica added a new charge – participating in a criminal organization. He also modified the other charge from straight human trafficking to conspiring to traffic in persons. The difference is significant. If you are charged with a straight offence, you can only be prosecuted for what you did personally; with conspiracy, you can be prosecuted for what your co-conspirators did, too.
Mr. Skarica's strategy was to keep the gang members in jail before trial. It would make victims more likely to testify if they knew their traffickers couldn't come after them, and pressure the accused to plead guilty. Without anyone on the outside, he reasoned, they couldn't keep their criminal enterprise going and their money would dry up.
In January, 2011, Mr. Skarica applied to have Ferenc Domotor's bail revoked. This time, he won. Police also arrested other family members. But Ferenc Jr. was still out.
Constable Jankovic, meanwhile, travelled to Hungary to meet with the federal police in Budapest. They confirmed that members of the family faced criminal charges in their homeland: Mr. Domotor had been charged with extortion shortly before he moved to Canada. Mr. Karadi was convicted of running a protection racket.
At the same time, the Domotors' in-laws went after Mr. Miko's family, offering bribes and threatening violence. Mr. Miko told Ms. Nagy who told Constable Jankovic. She informed the Hungarian federal police who brought the family to Budapest. An NGO flew them to Canada.
Then, Mr. Skarica got an alarming phone call: A federal member of Parliament told him a Hungarian hit man nicknamed "The Killer" had been hired to assassinate him, both RCMP officers and all the witnesses in the case. The assassin was stopped before he could reach Canada.
Around the same time, Mr. Skarica secured the money to hire junior Crown Valerie Gillis to help him out by organizing evidence and researching case law. She knew they were treading fresh legal ground: "Human trafficking is a new charge – I was really shocked to find out it was happening here in Canada."
Finally, Constables Jankovic and Farah discovered Ferenc Jr.'s bank account had paid for trafficking victims' plane tickets. He was jailed in July.
In October, Ferenc Karadi and Gyula Domotor applied for a bail review. They called witnesses to testify on their behalf. When Mr. Skarica cross-examined them, he caught them in repeated lies about their welfare frauds. Over the next few months, everyone pleaded guilty.
A GROUNDBREAKING CASE
The prosecution of the Domotor organization nearly doubled the number of human-trafficking convictions in Canada. The crime can be difficult to prove: You must establish that people have been recruited or transported, that they have been forced to work and that they have been intimidated or attacked. This case had them all.
As for those men who came to Canada looking for a better life, all are in different places. Some, like Mr. Miko, have found work and obtained refugee status. Others are struggling, with limited English and no life experience outside small-town Hungary. All are still afraid.
"Emotionally," Ms. Nagy says, "it's going to take them a very long time to recover."