Modern-day slavery suspected at Flagstaff wedding boutiquePosted: Updated:
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Forced marriages, torture and abuse are just some of the allegations involving a suspected human-trafficking operation here in Arizona. The victims claim they were forced to work as slaves for nearly a decade at the I Do, I Do Wedding Boutique -- a shop that sells everything from prom dresses to wedding gowns.
The owner of the I Do, I Do Wedding Boutique is now facing federal charges after men, women and children claimed they were being tortured and abused.
A customer was shocked to learn of the charges. "I just can't believe it. I'm in shock. This place has been here so long."
"One of the big challenges we face is getting victims to come forward and acknowledge that they are victims in the first place, said Matthew Allen, the Special Agent in Charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Dvision. "Human trafficking is all about exploitation."
After a year-long investigation into I Do, I Do, ICE along with the FBI raided the boutique last summer. According to the indictment, Kelly McReynolds, her ex-husband and their two adult children illegally brought people from Vietnam and then forced them to work seven days a week, 11 hours a day at their store as well as their Flagstaff home. They reportedly treated them as slaves keeping them isolated and threatening them with firearms.
"You're talking about a person who's been uprooted from the only culture that they know, taken away from the only family that they know, brought to a foreign environment, probably treated horribly in terms of physical abuse, mental abuse, sexual abuse," Allen explained. "I think most Americans can't even fanthom what that does to a person."
The indictment contends some victims were forced into marriages in order to evade U.S. immigration laws, a common practice for human traffickers according to Allen.
"They scare their victims by telling them if they don't do what they want, they'll turn them in to ICE or Border Patrol or someone in the Homeland Security and they'll get removed from the United States," Allen said. "That's a very powerful tool."
But that tactic isn't that effective because "if you're a victim of trafficking in the United States, you're actually eligible for immigration benefits," Allen said.
A message Allen hopes reaches victims and perpetrators. As far as reporting suspected human trafficking, "Look for the unusual. Look for what's not normal in your community or your neighborhood."
Because the overall goal, "If you are truly a victim of trafficking, the goal of the United States government is not to remove you from the United States, our goal is to try and do what we can to try and make you whole again and that may involve giving you long-term if not permanent status in the United States."
McReynolds said she reopened her shop in November. She denies keeping Vietnamese Nationals as slaves and says the U.S. government is out to get her.
To report human trafficking, contact the ICE Homeland Security Investigations. There are two ways to make a report. Visit http://www.ice.gov/exec/forms/hsi-tips/tips.asp or call 1-866-DHS-2-ICE.