Nigerians facing forced servitude charges in Texas

AP News
Posted: Dec 11, 2009 7:07 PM

She was a widow in a Nigerian village trying to raise six children when she says she met a man who told her he and his wife needed a nanny for their newborn. If she came with them to Texas, they would help support her children financially, give her free room and board, and pay $100 a month, the woman says she was told.

For a mother who couldn't read or write, lived in poverty and needed to buy her eldest daughter medication for sickle-cell anemia, it seemed like a desperately needed opportunity.

Instead, the woman alleges the couple _ fellow Nigerians Emmanuel and Ngozi Nnaji _ took her travel documents when she arrived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on Dec. 11, 1997, and forced her to work 16 hours daily with no days off for nine years.

The couple monitored her calls to family in Nigeria, refused to let her return home, didn't pay her and failed to support her children as promised, authorities say. Emmanuel Nnaji also repeatedly raped her, according to a grand jury indictment handed up this week in Fort Worth.

Emmanuel and Ngozi Nnaji are charged with forced labor conspiracy, forced labor, harboring a domestic worker for financial gain, conspiracy to harbor for financial gain, document servitude and making false statements to federal agents. The indictment outlines the rape allegations as part of the forced labor conspiracy.

Attorneys for the couple did not immediately respond to messages Friday. A telephone listing for the Nnajis was disconnected.

Court documents show Ngozi Nnaji, 45, told investigators the woman, whom she knew from her native village, showed up at the couple's house in 1999 with a man named Charles. She ended up staying for seven years because Charles never came back. But the woman was not required to do any housework, Ngozi Nnaji told FBI agents.

Emmanuel Nnaji, 50, told agents the woman came to stay with them for two months in 1999, at the request of a relative. They allowed her to stay until she could "get on her feet." He also said she cared for one of his children in exchange for room and board but could "come and go as she pleased," according to a criminal complaint.

The woman, who The Associated Press is not naming because authorities say she is a victim of sexual assault, told investigators a starkly different story. She said she met Emmanuel Nnaji in 1996 while working as a nanny for his brother-in-law. Ngozi Nnaji's brother asked if she would go work for the couple in Texas and she agreed.

He then took her to the U.S. Embassy in Lagos and obtained a passport and visa for her in the name of Comfort Nnaji, court documents allege. Comfort is the name of Emmanuel Nnaji's mother, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The woman lived with the Nnajis first in their Irving apartment, then in their Arlington home, according to the complaint. After the couple had two more children, the woman cared for all three while also cooking and cleaning. She was not allowed to talk to anyone outside the home, according to the complaint.

Her family in Nigeria said they only occasionally received money, she told officials.

One day, the woman was able to hide in a closet and call her niece in Nigeria to tell her about her ordeal. The niece told a Nigerian priest who lived in Texas and was back home on vacation. He gave the niece his cell phone number and asked that she give it to her aunt, according to court documents.

The priest, identified in court documents as GU, returned to Texas in February 2006, established contact with the woman and helped plan her escape. On Feb. 24, 2006, the priest drove to Arlington, where the woman met him on a street corner and she fled in his car, the two told investigators.

It's unclear where the woman is now and the Justice Department won't disclose her location. The Nnajis each face up to 55 years in prison if convicted. Ngozi Nnaji faces deportation because she is a Nigerian citizen.