Pr. George’s couple accused of treating woman like a slave

April 24, 2013

Gloria and Alfred Edwards Jr. admit that they broke the law by bringing a woman from the Philippines to the United States under false pretenses, lying on visa applications and having her stay in their Maryland home for a decade.

Alfred, 74, a retired Army doctor, and Gloria, 61, say their intentions were pure: They were trying to help an impoverished, illiterate woman from the Philippines start a new life in the United States.

The government, however, contends that the couple effectively enslaved the woman — known in court papers by her initials T.E. — in their Upper Marlboro home, forcing her to work without pay as a maid and threatening her with financial ruin, deportation and personal harm if she ran away.

A judge in U.S. District Court in Maryland will soon decide the Edwardses’ punishment, nearly a year after the husband and wife each pleaded guilty to harboring an undocumented immigrant and shielding her from detection. The severity of the sentence will probably hinge on whether Judge Deborah K. Chasanow believes that the couple forced T.E. to cook and clean against her will and whether the judge determines that the aging couple should be imprisoned for their crimes.

T.E.’s name was used in the court hearing, but The Washington Post generally does not identify crime victims.

At a sentencing hearing this week, witnesses described two vastly different realities at the Edwards home.

Sonja Brookins, a friend of Gloria Edwards, said Edwards introduced T.E. as “her maid” and verbally abused her. Brookins testified that when she found out that T.E. had left the couple’s home in 2009, she “was happy because she got away and she’s free.”

FBI Special Agent Mia Winkley described a recorded phone conversation from 2009 in which Gloria Edwards told T.E. that she would become an illegal immigrant if she didn’t return to the house and demanded money from her. “Pay me!” Gloria Edwards insisted, a demand that Winkley said referred to a contract that T.E. signed when she arrived in this country. The contract allegedly stipulated that T.E. would owe $20,000 if she left without finding a replacement.

“You just ran away without permission,” Gloria Edwards continued, according to Winkley. “If you don’t pay me, you’re done.”

T.E., who has a first-grade education, is unable to read, write or drive, and she has almost no grasp of English, Winkley said. Alfred and Gloria Edwards monitored her phone calls, required her to ask permission to visit neighbors, forced her to marry Alfred’s ailing brother David, and then took benefits that she was owed as David’s spouse after his death in 2008, according to FBI interviews and court documents.

The couple kept T.E.’s passport in a padlocked room above a drawer of handguns, Winkley testified. Prosecutors say T.E. was forced to work about 14 hours a day, seven days a week, without pay, and the government is seeking restitution. She was 59 in December, according to court documents. Her attorneys declined to comment or verify her age now.

Relatives of the Edwardses tell a different story: When they visited the couple, T.E. pitched in to help prepare meals and then sat down to eat with the family, played cards and sang karaoke, according to testimony.

T.E. was “like family,” Alfred Edwards wrote in an e-mail to one of T.E.’s daughters. The Edwardses sometimes supported T.E.’s children financially and provided them with housing and tuition, according to prosecutors and defense attorneys.

T.E. went to Christmas parties, weddings and baptisms, posing in photos with the family. She went on vacation with the Edwardses to Detroit and Las Vegas and went along on a Caribbean cruise, where she shared a room with family members and hit the dance floor, relatives testified. Defense attorney Robert Bonsib displayed a series of travel photos of T.E. smiling with family members.

As recently as 2008, according to testimony, she returned to the Philippines with the Edwardses to visit her children.

“I didn’t notice any difference between what she did and what we all did,” said Michael Stock, who married one of Gloria’s sisters. “She always seemed cheerful and glad to be there.”

Bonsib argued that the Edwardses wanted to help lift T.E. out of poverty, along with her eight children they helped support in the Philippines. T.E. “was afforded living conditions far more comfortable than she ever had been provided or experienced in the Philippines,” defense attorneys wrote in court documents.

The sentence will probably be handed down in early May, Bonsib said.

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