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Labor trafficking victim hidden ‘in plain sight’ in Ohio restaurant

On a typical day, Kendra Ross said she would work as many as 17 unpaid hours in a Dayton restaurant while under the control of what she later claimed in federal court was a cult, according to Dayton Daily News.

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That didn’t include the hours Ross said she spent taking care of the house of the group’s leader, she told Dayton Daily News. She said she had to cook, clean and care for children who lived there.

Her years performing as an “unpaid servant or slave,” as she put it in her civil lawsuit filed in federal court, led to a recent $8 million award against the United Nation of Islam (UNOI), the group that Ross called a cult -- now known as Value Creators, led by a man named Royall Jenkins. 

Ross lived and worked in Dayton near the end of her time with the group. She said her victimization by the group also included time in Kansas City, Kansas, Atlanta, Newark, New Jersey and New York.

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The case is unique, local officials said, because Ross’ plight was happening while customers visited the very-public Dayton restaurant where she says she was entrapped, the now-closed Food For Life Supreme restaurant.

Her case is also being cited as an example of what human trafficking can look like when it has nothing to do with the sex trade. Advocates fighting against trafficking have long noted it can be happening in any city and in many kinds of businesses.

“As this case shows, it’s happening literally in plain sight,” said Tony Talbott, the interim executive director at the University of Dayton’s Human Rights Center and also the director of Abolition Ohio.

“It’s so far out of our realm of what we think is possible that we don’t even realize it’s literally slavery taking place right down the street at that restaurant.”

Calls for comment for this article to Jenkins and the Value Creators were not returned. A woman who answered the phone number listed on the group’s website declined to comment for this story.

‘They took my childhood, my life’

Because her mother joined when she was young, Ross was associated for most of her life with the United Nation of Islam.

Jenkins founded the United Nation of Islam in 1978 when he split his group away from the national organization Nation of Islam. Jenkins has claimed he was taken by aliens or angels in a spaceship before being returned to rule on earth.

Asked in a February 2018 federal court hearing why she filed suit against UNOI and its entities, Ross said, “I know that what they’re doing is wrong and they need to be punished for it and shut down. And, I mean, they took my childhood, my life and, I mean, I can’t get that back. So I want them to pay for that.”

“This is a unique trafficking case,” said Ross’ attorney, Elizabeth Hutson. “It wasn’t some underground operation operating in the back of a massage parlor or a nail salon or the back of a bar at night where it was really hidden from public sight.”

Ross’ typical day

In the February 2018 hearing, Ross described for the judge a typical day for her. It included work at the restaurant from 6 a.m. until sometimes 11 p.m. Ross’ complaint said she sometimes took care of the house in which Jenkins stayed when he was in Dayton.

“So in the morning wake up, get myself ready, get the kids ready that were in the household, make breakfast, clean,” Ross said, according to a transcript provided by Hutson. “And when the transportation would come, I would get the kids on the bus and then go to whatever job I was going to be doing.

“Mostly it was at the diner cooking. And I would do that until I went home. And when I went home, there was more taking care of the children, cooking dinner, cleaning and -- and taking care of -- I don’t know, just basically took care of the whole household.”

Hutson said Ross was subjected to a non-legal marriage with a UNOI member while in Dayton.

“They restricted her access to the outside world,” Hutson said. “She didn’t form relationships or meaningful connections to anyone outside the group.”

Employees were ‘students’

Dayton Daily News reported in 2007 that the mission of Food For Life Supreme was to “transition people to a healthier lifestyle” by offering fish and vegetable based dishes.

The review said Food for Life Supreme was affiliated with the Kansas City-based University of the Art & Logistics of Civilization, and that employees were students from around the country who also did the intricate marble and slate tile work and carpentry still visible inside the building.

Hutson said that school was not an official entity, but a group that reiterated Jenkins’ teachings.

Forced labor a global problem

Ross’ case illustrates a side of human trafficking apart from sex trafficking and prostitution.

“I really think it’s important that we start focusing on the labor side of trafficking,” Talbott said. “Most people are pretty well aware of compelled prostitution or minor sex trafficking.

“It is a major international problem. It’s a problem here in the U.S., in Ohio, in Dayton. And it will continue to be a problem if we don’t increase awareness of it, both among the general public as well as law enforcement, the prosecutors, the detectives, the judges, so we can go after these folks.”

Experts say the duty to report suspicious situations falls to the average citizen, who may understand sex trafficking and prostitution but not forced labor.

“In a lot of ways, this was just kind of right out in the open,” Hutson said. “The phrase, ‘If you see something, say something’ is thrown around, but it certainly applies in this case.

“It really would take just a few people noticing that something looked off, particularly with the children who aren’t going to school and are working in these establishments.”

UNOI not on the radar

Dayton police, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, the local Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice offices all said they didn’t get complaints about or investigate UNOI.

“There’s been no criminal prosecution,” Hutson said. “But hopefully this judgment might spark that.”

Talbott said he was surprised by Ross’ case.

“Yeah, I was,” he said. “I shouldn’t have been, in hindsight. It made sense. It all clicked. … It hadn’t been on my radar at all, this organization.”

The UD professor said finding cooperating criminal witnesses must be hard.

“Everyone you’re going to try to interview is a cult member, so they’re not going to cooperate with law enforcement,” Talbott said. “These are very, very difficult cases to prosecute.”

Cult used fear and intimidation

Ross’ complaint said she was subjected to “humiliating and degrading treatment” at UNOI businesses and households that “made it clear that she was little more than an unpaid servant or slave in the eyes of UNOI” and that she endured verbal, psychological and physical abuse.

“If someone had tried to interact with her, she probably wouldn’t have talked to them,” Talbott said. “She would have been very withdrawn. She would have been frightened and scared.”

In the February hearing, Ross said she feared trying to escape because there were tales of former UNOI members being killed.

“I just felt like I couldn’t leave, like, I would end up getting killed or something bad happening to me,” she said.

Hutson said Ross finally got away from UNOI by the combination of the group’s fracturing, the help of non-cult member relatives and various nonprofit organizations.

“Finally,” Hutson wrote in the complaint, “in 2012, at the age of 21, Ms. Ross gathered her courage and strength to escape from UNOI.”

Hotline provides assistance

Cincinnati FBI public affairs specialist Todd Lindgren said, “There is no specific information I can provide” about whether Value Creators is under investigation, but Lindgren urged people reporting about potential victims to call or text the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at (888) 373-7888.

“This hotline provides assistance with connecting to anti-trafficking services in the area of the caller and is not a government entity, law enforcement or an immigration authority,” Lindgren said in a statement. “Those who wish to report incidents of human trafficking or suspected human trafficking may call their local FBI office, local police department or 911 if it is an emergency situation.”

‘Better to say something’

Talbott said that following instincts and collecting information about what could be a possible trafficking situation will help law enforcement.

“You get all those little clues together,” he said. “Get as much information as you can as a private citizen without endangering yourself of endangering the potential victim and then report to the national hotline with as much detail as you can and they’ll help put the case together.”

Officials said recognizing signs is key because any person’s tip might be the third or fourth about a business.

“I always tell folks it’s much better to say something and be wrong than to just sort of shrug your shoulders and walk on by,” Talbott said.

Hotline calls increased in 2017

Nationally, the number of cases identified as suspected trafficking after a call to the hotline increased 13 percent in 2017, to 8,759, according to the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking advocacy organization.

Ross hopes for justice

Hutson said the national hotline has heard from others in Ohio who may have been connected with Value Creators. Hutson said she would provide few details about Ross’ current life in order to protect her client and other possible victims.

The attorney said there’s no guarantee Ross actually will see the $8 million. In a statement provided to media, Ross thanked her attorneys and others.

“Mostly, I’m very happy that justice has been served and that Royall, UNOI and The Value Creators are exposed,” Ross’ statement said. “Although this legal win doesn’t change anything that has happened in the past, it makes me feel like some justice has been served.

“I’ll always live with the memories of what’s been done to me. To all of the members who are still a part of the Value Creators, and those who have left, it is not too late to get out, to be free and get help, justice and closure.”

HUMAN TRAFFICKING HOTLINE

Local, state and federal officials urge anyone reporting possible human trafficking to contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at (888) 373-7888. Callers can be anonymous and the resource is not run by law enforcement, immigration or government.

POTENTIAL CLUES

Talbott said the federal awareness campaign for human trafficking is called “Look Beneath the Surface.”

“The main way you all stop this, of course, is prevention -- prevent it from happening in the first place,” Talbott said. “But when you see it, how you intervene and help someone, people have to be educated on what the signs are.”

Talbot said some of the red flags of forced labor are:

• Untreated bruises or injuries or workers being unclean

• Inconsistencies in stories about how much they work

• Failure to make eye contact

• Looking scared but working really hard

“Even if you’re not a trained psychologist, you know when someone is acting oddly,” Talbott said.

WHERE HUMAN TRAFFICKING IS FOUND

• Massage parlors

• Nail salons

• Strip clubs

• Escort services

• Youth door-to-door traveling sales groups

• Construction work

• Independent restaurants/groceries

• Migrant farm workers

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