Verdict split in Llenroc case
George found guilty of harboring illegal immigrant
ALBANY Annie George, owner of the iconic Llenroc mansion, was convicted Friday of harboring an illegal immigrant at her Rexford estate. The federal court jury, though, acquitted her on the more serious charge of harboring an illegal immigrant for financial gain.
The verdict indicates the jury found that George knew or should have known that Valsamma Mathai, who had lived with the family for more than five years, was an illegal immigrant. But the acquittal on the more serious charge suggests the jury rejected the contention that Mathai stayed with the family as a formal servant.
The defense contended that George didn’t know Mathai’s status and that she was only a guest and treated like family.
George gave little visible reaction when Chief Judge Gary L. Sharpe read the jury’s verdict Friday afternoon in U.S. District Court. The jury reached its verdict after more than eight hours of deliberations over two days.
George now faces sentencing July 9 to as much as five years in federal prison, though she could get as little as probation. She also faces a fine of up to $250,000 and the loss of her stake in the opulent but, according to testimony, deteriorating Llenroc mansion.
George left the federal courthouse without commenting. But her attorney, Mark Sacco, speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, said George is devastated by the verdict.
“They clearly found that Annie didn’t benefit in any way from this,” Sacco said. “I think in many ways Annie feels vindicated. A lot of the reports were that Annie mistreated this woman, treated her like a slave. None of that was true. And that did come out in the trial.”
The case was marked by emotional testimony on both sides, with the woman prosecutors described as George’s servant, Mathai, testifying she agreed to work for the Georges in 2005 for $1,000 per month. What she ended up working was 17-hour days without any kind of day off, Mathai testified.
For more than five years of work, she only received about $24,000 in pay. It was that alleged disparity between work and pay that prosecutors argued was the financial gain George received.
In a news release, U.S. Attorney Richard Hartunian commended the Department of Homeland Security for its thoroughness and professionalism on the case.
“This case demonstrates our commitment to investigate and prosecute those who harbor illegal aliens,” Hartunian said.
Matthew Scarpino, resident agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Albany, said in a news release, “Today’s conviction is a testament to our solemn commitment to protect those who cannot protect themselves. HSI is committed to giving the victims the help they need to come forward with vigorous enforcement and tough penalties.”
The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Belliss and investigated by Homeland Security Special Agent Daria Botten.
Mathai was finally taken from the home May 3, 2011, after her son, worried about her welfare, made a complaint to a human trafficking hotline. The case, though, did not end up being a human trafficking case.
But the allegations of a servant working non-stop 17-hour days and given only a walk-in closet at the 34-room mansion, caused a sensation.
At trial, the defense pushed back against those allegations, arguing Mathai was offered a bed and was never a servant, but someone the family had taken in.
The case was also prosecuted with the backdrop of family tragedy, and dark family secrets. Less than two years before Mathai was pulled from the home, the head of the family, Mathai Kolath George and the family’s eldest son, George M. Kolath, Jr., were killed in a small plane crash. The plane, carrying them and an Amsterdam doctor, plunged into the Mohawk River on June 14, 2009. All three perished.
By that time, the family, with their six children, had moved into the Llenroc mansion. Mathai Kolath George was seemingly a successful hotel group owner. After his death, though, according to defense witnesses, the hotel business fell into ruin, and Annie George discovered a web of loans and mortgages that backed what Sacco called in his closing statements “a mirage.”
Annie George hadn’t been involved in the family’s finances — or any alleged agreement to pay Mathai — because her husband didn’t allow her to, she testified.
With that testimony came allegations of domestic violence. She said that when she tried to interfere, her husband would hit her, sending her to the hospital three times.
George now faces sentencing and a decision on what will happen to the mansion. Both will be up to the judge.
Her stake in the mansion could be forfeited. Sacco called her stake a small one, with her children formally owning the rest. The mansion suffers from maintenance problems, including a leaky roof, according to testimony.
With no money to fix the home after the collapse of the family’s hotel business, the home has also fallen far behind on property tax payments. As of last year, Saratoga County was owed more than $250,000.
George testified she went ahead and purchased the mansion after her husband’s death, using the $1 million she actually received from her husband’s life insurance policy and loans from friends, because she couldn’t bear leaving the place where her husband and eldest son last lived.
When she’s sentenced, George could receive as little as probation or house arrest. She is the sole caregiver to her remaining five children.
“The good thing about this is the judge was able to see Annie for who she is and not the reports, not through the eyes of the police or the government,” Sacco said. “She is a very good person. She takes care of her children. She works very hard and she’s been through a whole lot these last couple years.”
What will happen to Mathai now is unclear. She originally came to the United States in 1998 to work for a United Nations family. When she left that employment and settled with the Georges, she became an illegal immigrant.
Prosecutors indicated she was only allowed to remain in the country for the legal proceedings. The defense contended she made the allegations to be allowed to stay under a special human trafficking victim provision. There was no testimony, however, of any actual attempts to get her to remain beyond what was needed for the criminal case.
As for George, Sacco emphasized that the jury found no financial gain, no working relationship between George and Mathai.
“She’s devastated,” Sacco said of his client. “You have to understand this been going on for 18 months. She’s taking care of five children, she’s trying to run a business that’s not in very good financial shape, she’s been ridiculed and accused repeatedly, by not only the prosecution, but the press. For any person that’s a tremendous amount of stress. Many people wouldn’t hold up under this. She’s strong and I’m sure in the end, after some time, she’ll be fine.”