Man Found Guilty in Slave Case
Md. Couple Brought Woman From Brazil
By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2000; Page B01
A Gaithersburg man charged with keeping a Brazilian woman as a "live-in
slave" for nearly 20 years was convicted in U.S. District Court in
Greenbelt yesterday of violating immigration laws in connection with his
treatment of the woman.
The jury deliberated about seven hours over two days before finding Rene
R. Bonetti guilty of all three immigration law felonies with which he was
charged: conspiring to harbor an undocumented alien, harboring an
undocumented alien for financial gain and endangering the life of an
undocumented alien he harbored.
Bonetti did not react outwardly as the verdict was read. At the request
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven M. Dettelbach, who argued that Bonetti
was a risk to flee the country, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow
ordered him taken into custody immediately.
Bonetti, 51, who faces a maximum prison sentence of 35 years, had been
free on $50,000 bond since he was indicted by a federal grand jury last
September. Chasanow scheduled sentencing for May 15.
Bonetti was convicted of harboring and abusing Hilda Rosa Dos Santos,
who came to the United States in 1979 to work for Bonetti and his wife,
Federal officials say that thousands of foreign domestic workers like Dos
Santos are brought into the United States by their employers and abused.
Maryland U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said she hopes the conviction
of Bonetti will make people think twice about abusing people like Dos
"People sometimes forget that there are dire consequences to basically
holding people in slavery in this country," Battaglia said in an interview.
"We see this woman as representing the most vulnerable segment of our
population. This is one of those cases which called out for federal
involvement," Battaglia said.
Margarida Bonetti, 46, who was indicted on charges of abusing Dos
Santos, fled the United States and is now in her native Brazil, according to
testimony during the trial. Dos Santos had worked for Margarida Bonetti's
family in Brazil since 1961, according to court testimony.
Dos Santos, 65, illiterate in her native Portuguese and unable to speak
English, testified through interpreters that Margarida Bonetti assaulted her
repeatedly while Rene Bonetti did nothing to help Dos Santos, except to
suggest that she pray for his wife.
She also testified that she was never paid for the cleaning, cooking and
yardwork she did for the Bonettis and that her employers did not get her
medical treatment for a large stomach tumor and a gaping open wound in
her leg that became infected.
Dos Santos lived in a small, windowless basement, while the Bonettis, who
padlocked their refrigerator to keep Dos Santos out of it, lived in the large,
comfortable upstairs part of the house, according to court testimony.
Rene Bonetti, a native of Brazil, is now a U.S. citizen. John C. Maginnis,
his attorney, said his client was "completely at peace" with the verdict and
expressed concern for Dos Santos.
Bonetti testified that neither he nor his wife ever abused Dos Santos,
he characterized as a longtime family friend who was incompetent at
housecleaning tasks. He testified that he knew Dos Santos's temporary
visa was expiring in the early 1980s and urged her to take steps to become
legalized and took her word for it when she said she had.
In her closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mythili Raman described
Bonetti's defense as "an intricate web of lies." She pointed out that Bonetti
had admitted during cross-examination that he had lied to the U.S.
Immigration and Naturalization Service and FBI Special Agent Don Niely,
who helped investigate the case.
"He confessed, ladies and gentlemen," Raman said.
Dos Santos finally left the Bonetti home in April 1998, when neighbors
took her to a hospital to have her tumor, which prosecutors described as
the size of a soccer ball, surgically removed. The tumor was benign.
It was then that social workers learned of Dos Santos's plight, and the
and INS began to investigate while Montgomery Couty's Department of
Adult Protective Services stepped in to help the woman.
Dos Santos, who according to court testimony was given away by her
birth mother and has no family in Brazil, was granted temporary legal status
to testify against Bonetti. It could not be learned yesterday whether she
plans to petition the INS to stay in the United States.
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