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Episode Transcript

 

Introduction

In this episode of the gold law enforcement podcast US Department of State Diplomatic Security Services Special Agent Katherine Langston discusses her agency’s role in combating human trafficking and talks about a case where a woman from Nigeria was enslaved by a couple in Houston. When neighbors in this affluent gated community realize what was happening they came up with a plan to help the victim escape.

How Special Agent Langston got into Law Enforcement

Joe Libowsky Special Agent Katherine Langston. Welcome to the law enforcement podcast. What was your career path into law enforcement?

Special Agent Langston I went to Sam Houston State University for my undergrad and actually got a degree in chemistry and double majored in criminal justice then went on and got a masters in forensic chemistry from the University of Alabama Birmingham and was actually on my way to being a pathologist and pursuing medical school and actually got recruited by the U.S. Secret Service.

Joe Libowsky And how long were you with the Secret Service?

Special Agent Langston Almost 10 years. Then in 2011 is when I transitioned over to Diplomatic Security Service.

Joe Libowsky Is it unusual in the federal system for people to go from one agency to another.

Special Agent Langston No, I think once you get into the world of law enforcement it is not abnormal to transition from a state local over to the federal system and then even once you’re in a federal system, kind of transition over as maybe your personal needs change or just kind of your professional goals change.

 

Role of the Department of State Diplomatic Security Services

Joe Libowsky The U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Services what does that agency do?

Special Agent Langston We are the law enforcement and security arm of the US Department of State. We basically have the largest global security presence in the United States government. We’re in over 170 countries and we have about 29 domestic offices across the U.S. and are are basically primary role is countering terrorist and criminal threats, transnational crimes, passport and visa fraud is what most people know as because the Department of State is who issues visas for individuals wishing to enter the United States and also issues passports for U.S. Citizens.

We are also tasked with protecting our actual U.S. embassies and our personnel overseas. .

Joe Libowsky Can you talk about what specifically your agency does as far as protecting diplomats.

Special Agent Langston So our agency is tasked with protecting the Secretary of State and then the secretary of state equivalent when they visit the United States, typically it is a foreign minister that is at the secretary of state level and then any other protectee that might not reach the threshold of the Secret Service protection. We have to provide security for our ambassadors and then individuals traveling overseas so a certain congressman or senator has been traveling overseas and behalf of the U.S. government we would help support their security operation and plan once in-country.

Joe Libowsky I think a lot of people are familiar with the Secret Service and the detail with the President. Is the services that the Diplomatic Security Services similar to that?

Special Agent Langston So the Secret Service protects the president, vice president, and then their equivalents whoever the head of state is whether it be a king or president or prime minister or when they are visiting the U.S. And so we basically are the secretary of state level and then his equivalent when they visit the U.S.

Joe Libowsky What has been your roles?

Special Agent Langston With DSS, our special agent component is made up of Foreign Service officers who are a special agents and then we’re also Civil Service special agents. I’m actually one of the Civil Service Special Agents so I did not move and not transfer. I’m actually assigned to our Houston field office and I serve as continuity. I serve as the field training officer. I’m tasked with coordinating and handling the long term investigations.

Our foreign service personnel, most of their assignments are between 1 to 2 to 3 years and then they transfer. They are foreign service because we do expect and train them to go overseas and work at our embassies and consulates overseas. Where is my role is to basically help manage operations domestically in the Houston Office and to keep the casework going.

Joe Libowsky And you are fully sworn federal agents is that right.

Special Agent Langston Yes, we are all special agents.

Joe Libowsky So what types of cases would you work?

Special Agent Langston The typical caseload that comes into our Houston Field Office is passport and visa fraud whether it be individuals who have committed fraud to obtain a U.S. Visa. And then they were to be was either issued an air or they misused the visa once they get to the United States. We deal with all kinds of passport fraud, whether it be somebody’s stolen somebody’s identity and then they’re trying to obtain a passport on that identity, they’re presenting false documents to get a passport. Various cases like that. I actually specialize an international human trafficking. I serve as one of our representatives on the Houston Human Trafficking Task Force. With our large overseas presence, offer the overseas expertise and the ability to reach out to some of these countries and get support for our domestic cases. So in the majority of our cases, either the trafficker or the victim is a foreign national who either came in on a U.S. Visa or maybe circumvented the visa process.

Joe Libowsky People who are engaged in passport fraud, is often associated with other criminal activity?

Special Agent Langston Yes. We had a case in Houston a few years ago that made a lot of press, there were allegations that a woman hired somebody to kill her husband. She then assumed somebody else’s identity and then through that identity, in an attempt to actually hide her true I.D. that she was wanted for murder, had assumed somebody else’s identity, actually became a boat captain, and had obtained a passport that way.

Joe Libowsky Is it common for people involved in drug trafficking also to be getting passports under fraudulent circumstances?

Special Agent Langston Yes, we encounter and we worked closely with a lot of other federal agencies when the passport is either in commission or helped facilitate some of these crimes whether it be drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, human trafficking. A lot of times will will see evading arrest or we see one parent who’s trying to get a kid and flee the country.

 

Nigerian Nanny Case

Joe Libowsky So you had a case in Houston that attracted a lot of attention involving a Nigerian woman. It was a couple that was actually in Nigeria and met a woman that they ended up employing over there. Is that right?

Special Agent Langston Yes.

Joe Libowsky And so did they offer to bring her to the United States?

Special Agent Langston Yes. They were Chudy and Sandra Nsobundu, the couple. They had adopted two children in Nigeria and had employed two nannies at the time to care for them. They basically came to Nigeria, adopted the kids, actually came back to the U.S., left the two adopted kids with these two nannies.

When it was time to actually finish their paperwork to get the kids into the U.S. that’s when they offered our victim the opportunity to go to the U.S. with them to work with them.

Joe Libowsky Offering to hire this victim to come over to the U.S.. It was a very big deal. They had a ceremony in Nigeria with her family?

Special Agent Langston They did. According to our agents overseas in Nigeria they don’t always do the kind of the written formal contracts that we’re used to where you might get it notarized. There notarization processes is more of having a ceremony. There was a written contract that the victim and the Nsobundus signed, and the signing of it actually took place in front of our victim’s family. The ceremony itself the way it was described by our agents in Nigeria who interviewed her family wise, this was their way of reassuring them (the victim’s family) that this was all legitimate and that she was going to be well taken care and that the agreement that they were entering into, the contract, was going to be honored.

The couple was from Nigeria. They knew that by holding the contract signing ceremony they would gain the trust of the victim and her family.

Special Agent Langston Because the victim was willing to come to the U.S. I would believe that the two suspects they treated the victim well while she was in Nigeria yet in Nigeria she was paid and worked as expected and they were very nice to her.

It was basically her and another nanny were caring for these two children they (the Nsobundus) adopted. The issues that our victim encountered weren’t actually until she got to the United States.

Joe Libowsky What type of paperwork did the two suspects need to obtain in order for this newly hired nanny to be able to come and work in the United States?

Special Agent Langston So the nanny should have come in on a different type of visa if she was actually expected to work for the Nsobundus. Chudy, actually through his own admission, got our victim her visa by making a material false statement on her (the victim’s) application. He brought her in as a tourist non-immigrant visa. Individuals who come in on tourist visas aren’t allowed to work. She was actually not authorized to work. If or when individuals come into the U.S. on any type of employment based visa, the Department of State will actually look over their employment contract and ensure that it is actually meeting U.S. labor laws. Actually as a measure to prevent individuals being in forced labor or an exploitive situation. Some depending on what type of visa can actually go where it actually takes Department of Labor actually certifying them first in terms of the employment before we were actually even issued them the visa.

Joe Libowsky Did the couple claim that the victim was a relative of theirs.

Special Agent Langston Yes. So Chudy actually alleged on the this application that she was a relative and that she would be attending a graduation ceremony for one of his older children.

Joe Libowsky So the victim I would have to believe as excited about this new opportunity in the United States. What was the first thing that happened that kind of made things go bad.

Special Agent Langston Well for the victim, just to back up a hair, the victim at one point in Nigeria actually owned her own business. Kind of a dry cleaning stand or a laundry service.

She had gotten in a motorcycle accident in Nigeria and actually had broken her arm and then it had healed improperly where if you looked at her and almost looked as if she had two elbows. So at that point, when the Nsobundus found her as a nanny that was kind of the only work that she could do because she no longer could work and her laundry service. So they were a paying her. They offered to pay her more. It was going to be for a specific period of time. And they also told her that they were going to fix her arm. So for her this is going to be a great opportunity to get proper medical treatment and to make some money, and to get some education, and then hopefully be able to open up a business when she was done working for the family.

Joe Libowsky So when the victim came over what were the conditions like that she was living in and working in?

Special Agent Langston Things for her kind of changed as soon as she got to the U.S. Sandra, the wife, took all of her belongings from Nigeria, all the clothes that she had, and the belongings that she had minus her Bible. But took all of her clothes, threw them all away, gave her something else to wear and actually confiscated her passport and U.S. Visa. And then once she was in the house the conditions just kind of changed. So, she wasn’t provided her own room. She didn’t have her own bathroom. She had to sleep on the floor in the room where the toddler slept.

Joe Libowsky What type of food was she allowed to eat.

Special Agent Langston The victim was only allowed to eat leftovers. And even some leftovers were deemed too good for her.

So if they had actually cooked a nice meat at dinner, then she was actually only afforded the leftovers of the side dishes. If she wanted milk she had to strain it from the kids cereal. She had no choice on what she was allowed to eat. Everything had to either be reheated or she had to eat basically like cold leftovers.

Joe Libowsky Would the couple allow her to take hot showers?

Special Agent Langston No. The one time that she actually tried to because she was given a cap to wear over her head at all time which we have to reports from neighbors who that’s kind of what they remember she was always wearing the same thing. She always had the cap on her head, it was actually causing her a lot of irritation. So there was a time that she tried to take a hot shower and just kind of scrub her head. One of the children, one of the older children, observed her and called Sandra who then got on the phone with her and was screaming at her and telling her that she’s not allowed to use the hot water in the house.

Joe Libowsky Was the victim allowed to use the phone or communicate with her family in Nigeria in any way?

Special Agent Langston No once she got to the U.S. kind of all communication with her family was ceased. So she had no communication with them. She speaks the language “Igbo” and she speaks a little bit of English. It’s obviously gotten better and she has been removed from her situation. But at that time she didn’t read or write English even if she had access to a computer she didn’t have the knowledge of what to do with it She never had an e-mail address, came from a very kind of impoverished village in Nigeria, was taken to a bigger city when she worked for them in Nigeria. Her first time, her first experience in the U.S. and this was her first time ever seeing an escalator. Some of the things that we just take for granted. These are very new kind of very overwhelming experiences for her.

Joe Libowsky So the victim is sleeping on the floor eating leftovers. Can’t use the hot water. How many days a week was she made to work?

Special Agent Langston She worked everyday and her schedule just didn’t change. She had to get up before the rest of the family, do all the cooking and cleaning and caring for the younger kids. And then she was usually the last on the go to bed. And then as you can imagine most toddlers don’t routinely sleep through the night. So her time in the house was, she never really had time off. So if there was ever a issue with a kid or issue with the house, she was going to have to deal with it.

Joe Libowsky Did the victim have any contact with people outside of the house?

Special Agent Langston She was permitted to go to walk the younger children, usually twice a day, and she would just walk this one block radius around where their house was. And there was a neighbor who was recovering from the surgery at the time who started joining her and the two toddlers on that walk that she would make once or twice a day.

Joe Libowsky And this is a nice neighborhood?

Special Agent Langston This is a very nice affluent gated community.

Joe Libowsky So this neighbor who’s recovering from the knee surgery and is occasionally walking with the victim, did it get her attention?

Special Agent Langston Yes the victim was very reluctant at the very beginning to kind of talk about herself. The neighbor is quite the “Chatty Cathy” I think probably did most of the talking during their initial interactions. But then slowly started seeing things that made her question what was going on. And it was more of a question and answer. Like she would ask the victim questions and then just the way the victim responded at the time is what kind of started giving her pause in terms of like days off or if she had friends in the neighborhood and that kind of stuff. Our victim never made a outcry to the neighbor for help and said that she was in an exploitive situation. This is more a neighbor kind of questioning and noticing that her shoes were too big and didn’t seem to fit and that she always was in the same clothes and that her skin did seem moisturized. She looked ashy and her hair was always up and in kind of a hair net. So noticing some of those things is when she started to kind of question what was going on in this house that was basically across the street from them.

Joe Libowsky So as she starts asking more questions, What was the next step that the concerned neighbor did?

Special Agent Langston So, like a lot of people that might be in a similar situation, you are going to self-doubt yourself. You don’t want to get involved. You question if maybe this is a cultural thing that you just don’t understand.

 

National Human Trafficking Hotline

So the neighbor kind of, very unsure what to do, actually came across a poster for the Human Trafficking Hotline. And that’s when she called, and we cannot preach this enough to people. If you see something say something and if you don’t know what you’re seeing please still call. Talk to somebody, and they can walk you through it. She called the National Human Trafficking Hotline. They basically gave her some stuff to ask the victim; ask if she’s getting paid, ask if she has access to a travel documents, ask if she has access to her family. Ask about how much access she has outside of the house. The neighbor was unsure of herself and actually took some detailed notes on what kind to ask the victim. Then in some follow up conversations while they were walking around the neighborhood was asking. Our victim at that time was very reluctant to say anything negative about the Nsobundus. She just didn’t want to get anybody in trouble, she was very fearful of them. And also at this time had assumed that she was getting paid and she was almost sadly accepting of what she was enduring because she at least believed that there was going to be an out and at the end she was at least can have some money and then she’d be able to take care of herself and provide for herself back in Nigeria.

Joe Libowsky So, was the victim being paid?

Special Agent Langston No, the victim was not being paid.

Joe Libowsky How was it discovered that this couple was not paying the victim?

Special Agent Langston The neighbor was provided a phone number and they were able to contact our victim’s bank in Nigeria and the bank was able to tell our victim over the phone what her account balance was which she knew was the exact balance that it was two years prior or almost two years prior when she had left Nigeria.

Joe Libowsky So the victim is enduring these horrible conditions thinking that I’m putting up with this, I’m making money. When she learns that she’s not even being paid, was that kind of a tipping point.

Special Agent Langston That was the last straw for her. She was so concerned when the neighbor was initially talking to her. When the neighbor kind of mentioned something about maybe having her leave or getting into a better situation, her concern was for those little children. That was always her biggest concern and she didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize their safety and just worried if she wasn’t going to be there, who would possibly take care of them. It wasn’t until she discovered that she wasn’t being paid that that that tipped the scale for her and then she realized that she was getting nothing out of this situation.

The amount of money that the couple promised the victim, the amount of money they were not in fact paying a hundred dollars a month they weren’t even paying the victim the 100 dollars a month they owed her.

Joe Libowsky So once the victim was ready to leave that situation what was the next step in taking action to get her out of there?

Special Agent Langston The neighbor had lots of conversations with the Human Trafficking Hotline. Once she said hey this victim is willing and wants to leave, that when they got in contact with the local coordinators for the Houston area. That coordinator then worked with the neighbors to create an environment where the victim could escape.

Joe Libowsky So how other neighbors have been brought in for the plan. How many other neighbors were there that were now part of this?

Special Agent Langston Three

The neighbors were ready to help the victim escape. Now they needed one thing, a plan.

Special Agent Langston The plan is they would create some type of alert for the victim its time and safe to leave. Then they had lookouts and they had cars staged so once she walked over to a safe area the car would be able to pick her up and drop her off with the Victim Coordinator

For us, it was a matter of going and speaking with her and getting her side of the story of how she came to the U.S., what were her living and working conditions like, What were her expectations, what was she told, what was she promised, and then what were her reality.

 

What is Human Trafficking

Joe Libowsky What were kind of the elements that you needed to establish in this case?

Special Agent Langston For forced labor or trafficking cases you’re looking for elements of force, fraud, or coercion. And so for this as it comes into play, what were you told, but then what was the reality. She was told that she would come and she was just care for the children and that she would be paid. In reality she came to U.S., she was never paid. And then she was also forced to do all of the cooking, all of the cleaning, endured long hours in excess of what is lawful for an individual to work in the U.S. but was also never compensated and never properly compensated in terms of just for living conditions as well. I mean she slept on a mat on the floor of a room with two toddlers. She didn’t have access to shampoo and basic toiletries, wasn’t allowed to have hot showers and access to medical treatment. These are things that you look for. And then also what is compelling her to stay, what is the force or element of coercion used to keep her in that situation. So some of this is she doesn’t speak the language, she doesn’t know the area. She’s basically a gated community.

She comes from a country where there’s a fear of law enforcement due to central corruption or what have you. And then this is all kind of used to create this environment where she wasn’t free to go. And even if she had the capability to leave, she didn’t know anybody else there. She was never really exposed to anybody who could help her. Until this one neighbor kind of helped free her from her situation.

Joe Libowsky With the victim being from Nigeria, did your agency use resources in Nigeria for the case?

Special Agent Langston Yes. We had an amazing agent, Dan Parrott, who is the Assistant Regional Security Officer in charge of investigations in Lagos, Nigeria at the time and he and his criminal fraud investigator were amazing. We sent them so many requests to gain information in Nigeria. A lot of people think when something is outside the scope or the borders of the United States we have no access to it. Whereas they were able to take an armored motorcade to travel hours to up to northern Nigeria. They located our victim’s family. The transformer in the village actually went out when they were there and they were having to interview by flashlight. But they were able to corroborate so many statements from our victim. Our victim was basically sequestered from her family once she got to the US. So for us it was great cooberation because you had her story, she was never able to reach back out to her family were there wouldn’t be any question that they coached or they agreed upon some story.

So when our agents went and spoke with their family that’s the first first time in years anyone had actually heard of her so, and then when those two stories matched it lends a lot more credibility to what happened.

Joe Libowsky You said that your agents in Nigeria traveled by armored motorcade. What was the reason for that?

Special Agent Langston Some of the areas that they had to traverse just were not the safest. So out of abundance of caution and for safety for themselves, that’s how they traveled in the country at the time. They were also able to also corroborate officially that she was never paid on her through her bank records. Chudy himself not only actually fabricated information on a visa application but actually obtained a passport for her just prior to her getting her visa that actually had an incorrect birth date for her. So we were actually able through our agents in Nigeria through the Criminal Fraud Investigator able to prove what her actual birthday was which put her at a lot younger than what he was actually alleging on her paperwork.

 

Outcome of the Investigation

Joe Libowsky Did the case go to trial?

Special Agent Langston No the case did not go to trial. They ended up pleading. Chudy pled to visa fraud. And then Sandra pled to unlawfull conduct with respect to documents in furtherance of forced labor. What was the sentence that they received? They were sentenced each to seven months in jail seven months and home confinement plus three years of probation. They will each serve consecutively as opposed to concurrently as they still have minor children home and then they were ordered to pay over one hundred twenty one thousand dollars in restitution.

Joe Libowsky How long did the victim endure this?

It was for 2 years. During the two years that the victim was in this situation how is her health impacted by the the living conditions? So I think just the emotional toll and then just working almost 24 hours a day seven days a week. It took a huge toll on. We can look at the photo of her from when she applied for the United States and she looks radiant and glowing, to the day that she was rescued. And then now she’s a complete 180 and looks like her former self. Doing interviews of individuals who encountered her in the neighborhood, a law enforcement officer who witnessed her walking the with the kids one day, we’ve had descriptions of people where they described her as a “beat dog.” They would describe her as an old homeless woman. She’s younger than 40 and people would estimate that she was in her 60’s. The day that she was rescued the victim coordinator talked about the smell. She just didn’t smell clean and this is just two years of just not being able to properly eat, properly bath, probably take care of herself. And it just took a huge toll. Now you see her and she is amazing. She is smiling. And yes she has such an excitement for life. It was also two years of enduring verbal and physical abuse. It was two years of having her “employers” the Nsobundus tell her that she was stupid all the time and told her that she was worthless.

Joe Libowsky Is the victim still residing now in the United States. And hopefully she’s receiving the medical care that she had expected?

Special Agent Langston Yes, the victim is still in the U.S.. She at that time there was something in the United Stated called “Continued Presence.” You have the victim of human trafficking you can offer them a temporary immigration benefit which is called Continued Presence. That leaves them in the United States while you are there your investigation. And they it’s a mechanism that is designed to make them self-sufficient at the end financially emotionally supportive. So it’s how they can receive medical treatment if necessary therapy if needed. Some of these things to make that again. It was actually a doctor at Ben Taub who I believe pro bono did surgery and actually fixed her arm.

 

Law Enforcement Career Advice

Joe Libowsky You worked for two federal law enforcement agencies. What advice would you have for somebody either going into law enforcement or are considering it as a career. 

Special Agent Langston I recommend that people do as much research as possible.There’s so many agencies out there. Everybody’s pretty familiar with the ones that have TV shows or been prominently portrayed in movies. But there’s so many more out there. So I would I always tell people to research think about what your passions are. Think about what your interests are if you are an accountant somebody into numbers there’s amazing agencies that deal with money learning and financial crimes that way. You’re more interested in going overseas. And there’s different agencies obviously DSS so we can send you overseas. But there’s other agencies that have those missions as well. But it’s also like any other profession it’s take some time to actually think about the impact that it might have on your personal life as well in terms of if the agency that you’re looking at has a lot of travel are very bright. You move a lot.

I think some people glamorize certain agencies and then don’t realize some of the realities of kind of being on call 24/7 or having to transfer or having to move or some of the travel that’s involved.

Joe Libowsky Special Agent Langston thank you for being on the go law enforcement podcast.

Special Agent Langston Thanks

 

 

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