Authorities arrested seven people Sunday, charging them with holding captive scores of Mexican immigrants, most of them deaf-mutes, while forcing them to sell key chains with tiny bats and baseballs in a scheme that Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani likened to slavery.
Giuliani said investigators in the United States and Mexico were trying to determine whether any of the people were recruited through a school for the deaf in Mexico. He said some, using sign language, told of being kidnapped.
“This is a situation that is totally mind-boggling, that people would be taken in bondage and virtual slavery,”Giuliani said.
He spoke at the police station in Queens near two houses where the 64 people, including 12 children and three pregnant women, were discovered over the weekend.
“They were essentially being used as slaves,” the mayor said. “They were threatened if they didn’t work.”
Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, added that the seven who were arrested by police and federal agents could be part of a larger scheme. “The conspiracy has to be bigger. This is inhuman, and we’ll prosecute them to the full extent of the law,” he said.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said it appeared that the ring used a recruiter who made “frequent trips to Mexico, to homes for the deaf, luring two or three at a time,” to New York.
After more than a day of laborious questioning by Spanish-speaking sign-language interpreters, many of the immigrants remained frightened, authorities said. Police said some may have been physically and sexually abused.
Officials said the immigrants’ place of origin in Mexico was unknown, although some may be from Puebla.
Authorities said some of the Mexicans may have come to the United States through proper channels while others entered illegally through Texas and California and then were flown to two New York area airports by members of the ring.
Giuliani said the alleged captors also were found in the houses early Saturday. Some pretended to be mute, but their ruse was discovered by the sign-language experts.
The bizarre case began late Friday night when four of the immigrants entered the police station and, using notes and sign language, told startled detectives they were being held against their will and forced to peddle key chains for 18 hours a day on the streets and subways.
The trinkets, which sell for $1, not only have baseball items but tiny tools and a replica of a $100 bill enclosed in plastic. The chains carry a label reading: “I am deaf. These items are for the support of my family. God bless you. Thank you very much.”
Prosecutors charged that the sales were for the support of ring members, who only turned over a penny of the profits of each sale to the immigrants and who held them in the houses, threatening them in some cases with notifying authorities they were illegal immigrants.
In other cases, Giuliani said, the Mexicans may have held legitimate papers and passports, which their captors seized. Detectives discovered $30,000 in cash in one of the houses, where the immigrants were crammed into tight quarters, some crowded 10 to a room.
Federal charges of conspiracy, smuggling, and harboring and transporting illegal immigrants were filed against Alfredo Paoletti Rustrian, 37; Jose Paoletti Lemus, 28; Refugio Gonzalez-Santa, 21; and Rosa Beltran-Sanchez, 25. Brown said it appeared Rustrian was a local enforcer working for a more powerful ringleader.
State charges ranging from assault to grand larceny by extortion were filed against Adriana Paoletti Lemus, 29; Adelia Paoletti, 59; and Raul Alanis, 24.
One of the two homes in the case, a two-story structure painted yellow with a tiled foyer and brown carpeted front stairs, is on a street of neat, small homes near a shopping neighborhood in Jackson Heights.
Some people on the street said they noticed nothing unusual about the residents. But Gustavo Coronel, a cook in a restaurant who lives next door, told a different story.
“Ladies cry every night,” he said.