Federal prosecutors charged Monday that a Northern California couple forced a Guatemalan woman and her two minor daughters to work long hours at a restaurant and cleaning service for little or no pay.
They unsealed an indictment after the arrests of Nery Martinez Vasquez and Maura Martinez, both age 50 and both from Shasta Lake, about 170 miles north of Sacramento.
The couple, who themselves are naturalized citizens from Guatemala, are being held on charges of conspiracy, forced labor and harboring for financial gain, which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Prosecutors say they brought the woman and her daughters to the United States in 2016 using temporary visitor visas. But they are charged with harboring them after their visas expired and imposing a false $12,000 debt to keep them from returning to Guatemala.
They are also alleged to have separated the mother from her daughters, threatened them with arrest, and subjected them to physical, psychological, and verbal abuse that included striking the two girls with a stick.
Maura Martinez’s attorney, Tasha Paris Chalfant, declined comment. Mark Reichel, who is representing her husband, did not immediately comment. A judge entered not guilty pleas on their behalf.
The couple operated a restaurant called Latino’s as well as Redding Carpet Cleaning & Janitorial Services, according to the indictment.
They promised the woman “a more comfortable life for her family, including a livable wage and educational opportunities for her daughters,” prosecutors allege.
The woman and her older daughter were forced to work 12-hour days, seven days a week, for “meager pay, far below minimum wage,” while the younger daughter had to work several hours a day, seven days a week, for no pay, prosecutors said.
The woman was required to live in “a dilapidated, unheated trailer, with no air conditioning or running water,” authorities said. They humiliated her in front of her daughters and forced her to eat left-over food scraps.
The abuse ended in February 2018, according to the indictment, but authorities did not say what happened to the woman and her daughters. The government also moved to seize property held by the two defendants.