Ruthless trade of the `body brokers'

Recruiters: Shrewd operators match out-of-work islanders and hard-to-fill jobs - and profit handsomely in the bargain.

September 16, 2002|By Walter F. Roche Jr. and Willoughby Mariano | By Walter F. Roche Jr. and Willoughby Mariano,SUN STAFF and ORLANDO SENTINEL

MAJURO, Marshall Islands - Larry Muller had the air conditioner running full tilt in his late-model sedan as he cruised the dusty streets of this steamy atoll, pointing out the homes of recruits he has sent to America as contract workers in nursing homes.

He drove past a hut by a heap of junk and rusting construction equipment, the home of a young wife with three children whom he'd dispatched to Florida, earning himself a finder's fee of $500.

Down the road lived the family of a teen-age brother and sister he had sent to Iowa, putting another $1,000 in his pocket. Their parents support their 13 siblings, who play nearby on a fallen telephone pole that lies along the sea.

"I know some people say it's like slavery, but the majority are really happy," insisted Muller, whose full-time job is directing a merchant marine training program for the government.

Some 8,000 miles away, down a neat, palm-lined street and past a security guard in a gated community near Naples, Fla., is the place that Muller's American partner, Dennis DeMichele, a one-time radio station manager, calls home.

"I was about to go fishing," he said on a sunny morning in June, but agreed to discuss his recruiting business in the community's coffee shop. "I just got an order for eight [workers] the other day," he said. Each would fetch him a $5,500 fee from a nursing home.

A yearlong investigation by The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel has found that Muller and DeMichele are key players in a ruthless international business in which thousands of Pacific islanders are shipped to the United States on one-way tickets and consigned by "body brokers" to one to two years of virtual servitude at nursing homes and amusement parks. The workers are bound by contracts that require them to pay damages of up to $6,250 - equivalent to as much as half their annual wages - if they walk off the job.

A U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service internal memorandum states that such contracts may violate a 2-year-old federal law banning "human trafficking," the term used by governments to describe modern-day slavery, a practice condemned by the United States and the United Nations.

The document cited two clauses of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 that prohibit workers from being held in "debt bondage" and "involuntary servitude" through "the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process."

Though the companies have different names, their methods of recruiting the islanders and binding them to American employers through legal contracts and promissory notes are similar.

Principal figures in the field include:

DeMichele, 61, one of the most active recruiters through his firm DeMichele Et Al. Inc., charges among the highest fees in the business and boasts that he delivers a more-compliant employee. The Marshallese, he says, are "more trustworthy" and "a little more sophisticated" than the Micronesians he used to import. His partnership with the well-connected Muller, 41, won him an audience with the president of the Marshall Islands when he was launching his business.

Cathy Massey, 46, a registered nurse with a background in training nursing home aides, owns J/C Placement Services of Dallas, Ga., in partnership with Johnny Hebel, 45, a Micronesian health official. She blamed nursing homes for workers' discontent, saying the facilities treat them like "slaves."

Donald Finn, 66, pioneered the importing of Micronesian health workers five years ago. When it came time for one of his companies, Medical Placement Services Inc. of Bonita Springs, Fla., to pay workers' airfares home, the firm was legally dissolved, leaving hundreds stranded. A second, Guardian Solutions Inc., went bankrupt with the same result. In a sworn statement, Finn's former lawyer accused him of running "a pyramid scheme" that hoodwinked nursing homes.

David Bencivenga, 55, head of North Pacific Trading Co. of Kissimmee, Fla., talks about transporting hundreds of workers across thousands of miles as casually as if he were shipping woodcarvings. In fact, he tried unsuccessfully to sell such handicrafts to SeaWorld in Orlando before becoming a recruiter.

Important connections helped Bencivenga, an actuary, get his start in the recruiting business. The governor of Pohnpei, part of Micronesia, gave him a letter of recommendation for a key contract, and Bencivenga's partner, Hubert Yamada, was a senior Micronesian official. They met while Bencivenga, an American, was working as a consultant for island governments.

"We were trying to think of some kind of business where you could export from Micronesia," said Bencivenga. "We tried several different things. All of them failed."

Then they had a better idea: "What about the kids? You can just bring them in."

Under a 16-year-old agreement, residents of the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands can enter the United States without visas and work indefinitely.

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