Ukrainian brothers charged with slave labor in Philadelphia

It was a long journey from the steppes of Ukraine, through the heat of Mexico, and then to the tough streets of Philadelphia. The migrants were hoping for a better life with a job promising $500 a month cleaning stores.

Instead, U.S. authorities said, they were beaten, kicked, threatened, and held in virtual bondage by their countrymen.

In an act of brutal intimidation, a woman was repeatedly raped, U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger said Wednesday as he announced a racketeering indictment against five Ukrainian brothers on charges that they staffed their cleaning business with illegal workers kept in "involuntary servitude."

Memeger said the brothers had found the mostly male migrants in Ukraine, and lured them with the promise of a legitimate job, food, and housing.

Instead, he said, the migrants worked 16-hour days cleaning retail and grocery stores, including Target, Kmart, Wal-Mart, and Safeway, for $100 a month. They slept five and six to a room, and their travel documents were taken away as they were shuttled between jobs in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

The crimes are alleged to have occurred between 2000 and 2007. Eight of the migrants are cooperating with the government. Prosecutors say about 30 were brought to Philadelphia.

Memeger identified the alleged rapist as Moylan "Milo" Botsvynyuk, 51, who was arrested Wednesday in Berlin on an Interpol warrant and is to be returned to the United States.

He was the oldest of the brothers and the alleged leader. All five entered the country legally as tourists, but remained after their visas expired.

Botsvynyuk ran work crews out of a residence on the 3200 block of Aramingo Avenue in Port Richmond, court records say. The home, a former shop, is in a neighborhood of well-kept rowhouses. Other brothers lived nearby.

One, Stepan Botsvynyuk, 35, was arrested outside Riverview Plaza in South Philadelphia and was ordered held without bail pending a hearing next week.

The three other brothers left the country before 2007. Mykhaylo Botsvynyuk and Yaroslav "Slavko" Churuk, 41, were arrested in Toronto by Canadian police. Dmytro Botsvynyuk is in Ukraine, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.

All the brothers were unaware of the investigation until law enforcement officials in the three nations swept in and arrested them, said Douglas E. Lindquist, FBI assistant special agent in charge.

The alleged victims cooperating with investigators - two women and six men - will likely be allowed to remain in the country legally.

"They are all recovering from a very traumatizing experience," FBI Special Agent Ned Conway said.

The brothers provided nighttime work crews for contractors hired by large and small grocery stores and by chains.

Spokesmen for Kmart and Wal-Mart said they were unfamiliar with the charges. Wal-Mart said it had policies to ensure subcontractors comply "with all laws."

In 2005, Wal-Mart agreed to pay $11 million to settle allegations that illegal immigrants worked as janitors in its stores.

In October 2003, immigration agents raided 61 Wal-Marts and arrested 245 janitors, including 28 in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The nationwide campaign, Operation Rollback, focused on suspicions that contractors had recruited and hired illegal immigrants as janitorial workers, allegedly with the knowledge of some Wal-Mart officials.

Target said it was "appalled" by the charges and insisted that "we take significant steps to contract with vendors that will maintain the highest standards. Through these contracts and a written certification process we require all vendors to comply with all applicable laws, including immigration and pay practice laws."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel A. Velez said the large discounters had not hired the immigrants directly, and were likely unaware of their status.

Officials declined to say whether the subcontractors were under investigation.

At six addresses associated with the brothers in Port Richmond, residents said they didn't know or remember the suspects.

The neighborhood is a traditional stronghold of Eastern European immigrants, especially Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and Lithuanian.

One woman a few doors down from a Salmon Street house associated with Churuk said the immigrants often had kept to themselves and didn't speak English well.

Many of the alleged victims were fresh out of the Ukrainian military and looking to start life afresh. But upon arrival, authorities said, they were told they owed at least $10,000 to the brothers, and had to work for essentially no pay until that debt was paid off. One man was told he owed $40,000 and would have to work for three years, authorities said.

Some migrants started secretly working second jobs to earn enough to eat, according to court documents.

To keep the workers in line, the brothers allegedly used "slapping, punching, and kicking," and death threats, the documents said.

After some workers escaped, the brothers "resorted to . . . threats to the workers' families in Ukraine," according to the documents. One worker was told an 8-year-old daughter in Ukraine would be turned into a prostitute.

The brothers traveled back to Ukraine in 2007 in an attempt to collect money by threatening the migrants' families, officials said.

The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI, Immigration and Customers Enforcement, and state and local police.

It started in 2005 with a tip from overseas, but was slowed because of language barriers, fear, and a mistrust of American police after experiences with law enforcement in other nations, Lindquist said.


Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or ngorenstein@phillynews.com.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Troy Graham, Julia Terruso, and Sam Wood.