At least four separate human trafficking cases are now making their way through state and U.S. District Court.
Jean-Claude Toviave, a former U-M janitor and part-time tennis instructor, is federally charged with trying to pass off four African immigrants as his own children, giving them fake names to sneak them over in 2006. Documents accuse him of abusing them for years in his Ypsilanti home, which he got through Habitat for Humanity, and forcing them to do housework.
His so-called children told authorities they were deprived of food and beaten with broom handles, a plunger, electrical cords and an ice scraper when they didn't finish chores or homework. They detailed the years of abuse in journals, which police confiscated, and said Toviave threatened them if they tried to leave.
The "children" weren't a big secret. Prosecutors say he enrolled the three youngest -- they were actually 21, 20 and 15 but had been given fake birth dates -- in a public middle school. The students told counselors of the abuse, triggering an investigation.
Toviave, 42, was arrested in May and is in jail awaiting trial on human trafficking and forced labor charges.
In state court, six defendants are facing human trafficking charges in two separate cases brought by Michigan's new human trafficking unit, formed last year by state Attorney General Bill Schuette.
One case involves Detroit resident Seddrick (Gruesome) Mitchell, 32, who goes on trial in March. He is charged with enslaving two teenage girls in a home on the city's east side, forcing them to work as prostitutes and keeping all their money. Mitchell faces up to life in prison if convicted.
In the other case, five metro Detroiters were charged in December with running a human trafficking operation through a prostitution ring called Detroit Pink. Authorities say it involved at least one minor and forced drug running across the country.
In federal court, Ukrainian nightclub owner Veniamin Gonikman, who was once on the U.S. government's most wanted list, will be sentenced in March for his role in a smuggling operation that forced Eastern European women to work in Detroit strip clubs and forfeit all their earnings -- more than $1 million worth. He faces 41-51 months in prison.
"Here we are in 2012 ... and there are women and children and men held against their will here in America. I think that's a sobering thought," said Special Agent Brian Moskowitz of the ICE Homeland Security Investigations, which handles international human trafficking cases.
Especially troubling, he added, is the victims' fear that they can't escape.
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