By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has upheld the conviction and sentence of a Gaithersburg man who harbored an illegal Brazilian immigrant under slavery-like conditions for almost two decades, and further ordered the man to give her 14 years of back pay.
The Thursday ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not say how much money is owed to Hilda Rosa Dos Santos, a Portuguese-speaking woman brought to the United States by Rene Bonetti and his wife in 1979 to be their domestic worker. According to court documents, the Bonettis held Dos Santos’ passport and did not renew her visa after it expired in 1984.
The illiterate woman had to clean the couple’s $250,000 home every day and she was also expected to cook, shovel snow, rake leaves, walk the dog and wash three cars, among other domestic chores. Bonetti claimed he was putting her pay into a bank account, but he never did and he refused to pay her directly, according to testimony.
In addition, the Bonettis forced Dos Santos to live in a small, windowless basement room. They forbade her from using their showers, forcing her to carry pails of water to the basement to bathe in a tin tub, and they padlocked their refrigerator to keep her from eating or drinking from them.
Dos Santos suffered “serious bodily injuries” at the hands of Mrs. Bonetti, who sometimes abused her as often as once a day, according to evidence. Dos Santos was once scalded with hot soup because Mrs. Bonetti did not like the way she had prepared it. On another occasion, clumps of Dos Santos’ hair were pulled out, leaving a bleeding scalp, because Mrs. Bonetti did not like the way she combed the dog.
The court said Dos Santos was hospitalized for four days with a bad leg infection because Bonetti waited more than a year before he allowed her to get medical attention.
Evidence also showed that Dos Santos developed a cantaloupe-sized tumor in her stomach that the Bonettis refused to have treated. She had to get a hysterectomy when neighbors finally took her to a hospital in April 1998.
A federal jury convicted Bonetti of conspiracy to harbor an undocumented alien, harboring an undocumented alien for financial gain and endangering the life of an undocumented alien. U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow sentenced him in August 2000 to a 6.5-year federal prison term.
Bonetti challenged his conviction on charges that he was responsible for the harm to Dos Santos, but the court found that his wife’s “physical abuse of Dos Santos was foreseeable” to him.
“These acts of abuse were undoubtedly committed in furtherance of the Bonettis’ conspiracy,” the court concluded. “The purpose of the conspiracy was to obtain free labor from Dos Santos, and the physical abuse furthered that conspiracy by intimidating Dos Santos from asserting her right to payment or resisting the Bonettis’ demands that she work.”
A three-judge panel of the appeals court also upheld Bonetti’s sentence, saying the judge did not exceed her authority in sentencing him to 6.5 years. But it reversed the lower court on the issue of restitution for Dos Santos and sent the case back to Chasanow, telling her to order Bonetti to “pay restitution to Dos Santos for the wages she should have received.”
Dos Santos applied to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for humanitarian asylum after the conviction, but her status was unknown Friday.
Neither Bonetti’s attorney nor the government attorney in the case could be reached to comment on Thursday’s ruling.
Dos Santos’ attorney, Siverina Rivera, hailed the ruling as a strong warning for people who may be mistreating immigrants like her client.
“I think the appellate court decision is appropriate,” Rivera said. “I’m hoping Mr. Bonetti puts everything to rest now. (Dos Santos) has been through enough already.”
She said it has not been determined how much Bonetti owes his former domestic worker, but that a freeze order has been put on his house.