Valsamma Mathai worked for Annie George and George’s family for more than five years, never taking a day off, never taking a vacation day or a sick day, Mathai testified Tuesday in federal court.
Her typical workday at the family’s Clifton Park home began about 5:30 a.m. and didn’t end until after 11 p.m., she said. In between, she prepared meals, cleaned the house and made everyone’s beds.
Even when she was off, she was never really off work, she testified. She slept near the family’s children, available during the night if they needed anything. At the opulent Llenroc mansion, which the family has occupied since 2008, her sleeping arrangements were near the children, in a walk-in closet.
She also never saw friends of her own or family, and was only allowed to relay pleasantries to family guests, she said. She wasn’t allowed to actually speak with them.
She did, however, have a prepaid calling card that she was allowed to use to call her sons in her native India. She was only allowed to call them after the family children had gone to sleep.
By early 2011, she began talking to one of her sons about getting out.
“Because I would work there until I died,” Mathai testified Tuesday when asked by prosecutor Richard Belliss why she wanted to leave. “I had to escape from there.”
Mathai testified at the trial of her former boss, Annie George. George is accused of harboring an illegal immigrant for financial gain. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison, though she could get far less.
Mathai testified in her native Malayalam language, a translator relaying her testimony to the court. Mathai does not know English.
Prosecutors are trying to prove that George knew Mathai was an illegal immigrant and then concealed Mathai from detection for financial gain.
George’s attorney, Mark Sacco, has argued that his client did not know about the servant’s immigration status or how much she was being paid, because George’s late husband handled the finances.
Mathai testified she came to the George’s home in 2005 after a chance meeting in New York City at a bus stop. Mathai had been working there with a family that worked at the United Nations. The man at the bus stop, who spoke Mathai’s native language, offered her a higher-paying job. She accepted. Days later, she met Annie George and her husband, Mathai Kolath George, and began working for them.
On cross-examination by Sacco, Mathai also revealed the man at the bus stop offered to marry her. She accepted, but didn’t see him again after she was introduced to the Georges. Mathai Kolath George had warned her away from the man, calling him a drunk.
With that, she agreed to work for the Georges. The agreement was that she would be paid $1,000 per month. Mathai testified under questioning by Belliss that she did not know that her visa did not cover this new job, meaning she was then in the country illegally.
Mathai also testified the Georges did not ask for any of her documents before hiring her, documents that, according to earlier testimony, are required when hiring someone to ensure they are eligible to work.
Mathai testified she eventually only received about $25,000 or $26,000 for her more than five years of work with the family. Much of that was sent back to India to support her two sons.
After two subsequent moves, the family arrived at the Llenroc mansion in Rexford in 2008. One of the family’s children, George M. Kolath Jr., 11, died with his father in a 2009 plane crash.
Mathai said she was allowed to go out on the grounds, but never had time to because of her work schedule.
Shortly after the move, Mathai told Annie George she couldn’t do all the work and that a second servant was needed. George hired the second servant, who stayed for about nine months, but left after an argument in 2009.
On cross-examination by Sacco, Mathai said that the second servant offered to take Mathai with her. Mathai feared that if she left she would never see the money that Annie George had failed to pay her.
In his questioning of Mathai, Sacco portrayed his client as paying Mathai well above what she was receiving from the U.N. family. That family started paying Mathai only about $100 per month in 1998, eventually raising that to $350 by 2005.
Sacco tried to suggest that the U.N. family also didn’t file the proper employment paperwork. Mathai said they gave her documents to sign, but never copies for her.
Mathai also testified she was given a bed in the family’s first two homes, then slept in the walk-in closet at Llenroc. She was only offered a bed there after a year or two, she said.
Sacco also focused on Mathai’s statements to authorities in the days after she was taken from Llenroc and her statements to a human trafficking hotline.
Mathai originally told the hotline she was kidnapped or that her documents had been confiscated, Sacco suggested in questioning. Mathai finally said on the stand that she did tell authorities she was guided into a car by the man from the bus stop and that she felt threatened. But she testified Tuesday that she went willingly.
Sacco has argued that Mathai has wanted to use the case to allow herself to stay in the country as long as possible, even to get clearance to stay under human trafficking victim provisions, though the case itself did not end up being prosecuted as a human trafficking case.
“Isn’t it true that your goals here are to stay in the U.S. as long as you can and get as much money from Annie George as you can?” Sacco asked.
Mathai responded that wasn’t the case. She wants to ensure that she gets the money that she worked hard to earn, she said. “Other than that, I don’t care.”
Mathai is currently allowed to stay in the country for her role in the George trial.
Mathai did have contact by phone with the Polaris Project, she testified. It was the project, also known as the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, that Mathai’s son in India originally contacted about his mother, to try to extricate her from the situation. The project then relayed the information to law enforcement to get Mathai out.
Mathai also knew when the investigators were coming to get her. She told the hotline to come when George was there, so that George couldn’t accuse her of taking anything on the way out.
When the day came, Mathai said, “I was very afraid. I did not know what was going to happen.”
Before being essentially pushed out a side door of the house, Mathai testified that George took her to the basement and told her Mathai was being taken to jail. On cross-examination, Sacco suggested that was a new part of Mathai’s story.
Once Mathai was outside, those inside didn’t send her belongings out for another hour, Mathai said. When they arrived, her diary, where Mathai kept records of how much she was paid, was missing.
Mathai also testified she never left the home, except with the family on shopping trips. She didn’t know the neighbors and she wasn’t aware of a bus line passing the mansion.
Asked by Belliss why she just didn’t leave, Mathai appeared to reference her lack of money.
“How could I leave?” Mathai said.
Testimony is expected to continue today.