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Agent tells of fear at Llenroc

Servant’s son called trafficking agency to rescue mother

Monday, March 4, 2013
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Annie George, owner of Llenroc Mansion, on Monday leaves the Federal Courthouse in Albany with her attorney following jury selection in a trial where she accused of harboring an illegal immigrant for financial gain.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Annie George, owner of Llenroc Mansion, on Monday leaves the Federal Courthouse in Albany with her attorney following jury selection in a trial where she accused of harboring an illegal immigrant for financial gain.

— The Department of Homeland Security tried to describe Valsama Mathai’s reaction when the servant was sent out a side door at the Llenroc mansion May 3, 2011.

Special Agent Daria Botten was at Llenroc with other officials looking for Mathai, after receiving information that originated with Mathai’s son.

“She seemed to be nervous about what was going on,” Botten testified Monday afternoon at the trial of Mathai’s former employer, who is accused of making her work in illegal conditions. “But she was relieved we were there.”

Standing trial is Annie George, who lives in the Llenroc mansion with her family. She is accused of harboring an illegal immigrant for financial gain. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison, though she could get far less.

The trial began Monday in U.S. District Court in Albany.

Prosecutors allege George essentially kept the woman in the mansion, making her work long hours for little to no pay.

The servant typically worked more than 17 hours per day and slept on the floor of a walk-in closet after moving into the mansion in 2008, authorities have alleged.

Up until Monday, the servant has been identified only by her initials, V.M. In court, though, she was identified by her full name, Valsama Mathai.

George’s defense attorney, Mark Sacco, has said his client did not know about the servant’s immigration status or how much she was being paid, because George’s late husband handled the finances.

Sacco has also said he believed the woman’s accusations could be a pretext for her to get to stay in the United States.

In addition to prison time, George also faces loss of her interest in the Llenroc mansion if she is convicted.

In an affidavit filed at the outset of the case, Botten told of going to the mansion after the Department of Homeland Security received information from the Polaris Project, also known as the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

It was Mathai’s adult son, Shiju Mathai, who contacted the center. The son and mother are no relation to George’s late husband Mathai Kolath George.

The prosecution has said Shiju Mathai relayed to the project that his mother needed to be rescued from “overly arduous working conditions.”

At the home, Botten told of first encountering a woman at the door — Nichole Yungandreas, a friend of George’s.

Yungandreas said she didn’t know who Mathai was. When shown a photo of the woman, she then said she recognized her, but Yungandreas had no authorization to let anyone in or out.

The owner, Annie George, was also unavailable and the investigators were given the number of George’s attorney.

As that was all going on, investigators waited outside. They also spotted a woman inside that they believed to be Mathai.

Finally, Mathai was sent out the side door. Investigators tried to make sure she was OK, though she spoke little English. Based on the photo, they were confident that she was the person they were looking for.

Investigators also demanded her belongings, which were eventually sent out piecemeal.

George wasn’t arrested until nearly a year later in February 2012.

Mathai began working for the Georges in October 2005 and was promised $1,000 per month, investigators said. She moved with the family from Catskill to Menands, then to Llenroc in Rexford. Mathai first entered the U.S. in 1998 legally to work for a United Nations employee. But her visa was no longer valid when she worked for the Georges.

Mathai is expected to testify today through a translator. She speaks Hindi and Malayalam, an Indian dialect, and has a 10th grade education.

Mathai’s son, Shiju Mathai, also corresponded with George by email at various times. In an October 2010 email exchange, Shiju Mathai wrote of wanting his mother to come back to India for a visit. He hadn’t seen her in five years.

In broken English, the son wrote he was eager to see his mother. George wrote back for him to send his phone number, that she would call him.

Two weeks later, the son indicates that George never called. He also referenced the costs for his studies, which were mounting, referencing the lack of funds being sent home.

Later, after his mother was removed from the mansion, the son spoke with George by phone, taking it upon himself to record the conversations. Those conversations are expected to be entered into evidence today.

Prosecutors allege Mathai was paid between $25,000 and $30,000 total for more than five years of work but was entitled to more than $200,000 during that time under prevailing wages. The woman also claimed she hardly had any time off and never received medical care.

In a pretrial filing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Belliss indicated investigators found $10,000 in cancelled checks written to Mathai by Mathai Kolath George, who died in a 2009 plane crash.

Investigators also found $5,000 in cancelled checks written by George herself, as well as $4,000 sent to Mathai’s son via Western Union money transfer.

Belliss indicated Monday that the prosecution’s case could wrap up today. He had originally predicted a three-day trial. Judge Gary L. Sharpe is presiding over the case.

 
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