GILROY — A couple has been charged with human trafficking on allegations they duped a man who traveled from India into working at their liquor store under literal lock and key, and severely underpaid three other people in their employ, according to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.
Amarjit and Balwinder Mann, both 66, are further accused of luring the victims to the United States with promises of traveling the country, but instead exploiting them, prosecutors said.
In a news release, the district attorney’s office stated that one victim “worked 15 hour shifts, seven days a week, slept in a storage room, bathed in a mop bucket, and was never paid.” This man is said to have flown to the United States in October 2019 expecting to travel the country with the Manns, but “they took his money and passport and put him to work without pay or a key to leave the liquor store at night.”
“What this case exposes is that you might think that people cannot be exploited at this level in this country, but it’s more common than society realizes,” Deputy District Attorney Patrick Vanier said Monday. “It preys on some of our most vulnerable populations. Any individual, whether they’re documented or undocumented, they have rights.”
The Manns were charged Friday with nine felony counts encompassing human trafficking, witness intimidation, false imprisonment, at least $120,000 worth of wage theft and conspiracy. They were scheduled for arraignment Monday, but that hearing was continued to Tuesday. They were both held in the Santa Clara County jail on $1 million bail, though there were signs in court Monday of imminent bail relief.
The defendants’ attorneys could not be immediately reached for comment Monday.
Suspicion about the liquor store surfaced in February when agents with the state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control conducted a decoy alcohol-sales sting at Gavilan Market and a random inspection at M&M Liquors, both located off Westwood Drive and operated by the Manns.
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According to a investigative report from ABC, an employee at the market was cited for selling alcohol to a person identifying as a minor, and later revealed his wage conditions. At the liquor store, agents encountered an employee who “appeared to be living in a small storage room in the back area of the store,” which had a thin mattress slung over milk crates, an office desk being used as a dresser, and evidence indicating the man was bathing from a mop sink.
Later police surveillance of the liquor store found that this employee never left the property as they watched it close for the night and open in the morning, according to the report. Agents also determined through the state Employment Development Department the liquor store had no reported employees and that the market had a single reported employee.
Over the next several months, agents, joined by DA investigators and assisted by the San Jose Police Department, spoke to three other employees for the Manns’ businesses who described suspicious wage payments. They told investigators that they routinely worked more than 12 hours a day and were unaware of minimum wage.
They sometimes referred to the Manns as “Uncle and Auntie” but there was no indication that there were any blood ties, just that they were family friends “volunteering” to help the business out of those familial bonds, according to the investigation.
In a summary of an interview with Balwinder Mann, the ABC report states he said, “well, let’s call him my nephew” in response to questions about the family ties and that they were “just helping out.”
On July 1, investigators served search warrants at the Manns’ home in Gilroy and their two businesses. It was after that point, investigators say, that the man who had been living in the liquor store was told by the Manns to sleep at their home, and was offered reduced work hours.
The defendants are also accused of coaching this man’s responses in his phone calls with investigators, and coercing him into submitting a letter to the agents attesting that he was freely and voluntarily working for the couple from whom he received free room and board. All the while, the couple was threatening him and other employees with possible deportation, investigators contend — including two others who say they flew to Mexico but lost their passports while crossing the California border.
In interviews with authorities, the man allegedly forced to live and work at the liquor store said he was allowed to leave Gilroy exactly one time, on New Year’s Day to worship at the Sikh Gurdwara temple in San Jose. He said he was afraid to leave the situation because he did not have anywhere to go, no resources, and did not want to tell his family in India what had happened to him.
Over this past summer, with the help of human-trafficking victim advocates, he felt he had mustered enough support to get away, and fled to safehouse with authorities. Last month, he submitted one last statement in the form of an affidavit, which bookends the investigative record.
“I started to sleep in the liquor store. I worked from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight seven days a week,” the affidavit reads. “I never got to travel, except one time to travel. I continued to work because I had no other options. I wrote the letter (exonerating the Manns) because I was told to write the letter. I did not get any money for my work.”
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