CONVICTED–In a photo provided by the U.S. Marshals Service is Jean Claude Toviave,
who was convicted Monday March 25, 2013 of forcing children to work as slaves at his Michigan home. (AP Photo/Detroit Free Press, U.S. Marshals Service)
by Mike Householder
DETROIT (AP) — Some of the children were only in middle school when a former tennis pro from Africa faked immigration papers and brought them to Michigan, where he forced them to cook and clean while starving and beating them with toilet plungers, broomsticks and electrical cords.
Jean-Claude Toviave presented the children as his own, but authorities and the victims’ statements described them as little more than slaves with little chance to escape in a foreign country.
“I prayed at night that God would either help me to be free or allow your assaults to kill me,” one boy, now in high school, wrote in a victim impact statement. “The pain is something I will never forget. In the midst of your verbal and physical assaults, you worked the four of us to death.”
Toviave, 44, was sentenced Monday to more than 11 years in federal prison after a jury convicted him in October on four counts of forced labor. He previously pleaded guilty to fraud and misuse of visas, mail fraud and harboring aliens.
In a court filing, prosecutors said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Toviave brought the four children from Togo in 2006 and forced them to work in his home in Ypsilanti, near Ann Arbor, for nearly five years until January 2011. Toviave, who was a tennis pro in Togo until 1990, presented the children as his own and enrolled some of them in middle school when they arrived. They now range in age from teenagers to young adults.
The children told authorities that Toviave made them vacuum, iron, cook, clean and shine shoes. If they didn’t follow his orders, he beat them or denied them food.
The boy who is now in high school said he has permanent damage to his vision and persistent headaches after Toviave kicked him and punched him in the face. But he also said he plays several sports at school, is president of the student council and wants to study medicine.
The “Lord has healed my heart enough to find something good while enduring the physical, mental and emotional abuse you dealt,” the boy, known only as “A.K.,” wrote in his victim impact statement, which was read in court.
Two of the former children attended Toviave’s sentencing, but they did not speak.
Toviave didn’t apologize when he had the opportunity to speak but instead recounted traveling to Ghana in 2007 to visit his sick mother. U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow gave him the maximum sentence sought by the government, 135 months in prison, with credit for about two years already served.
“I can’t get a read on you,” Tarnow told Toviave. “I can’t tell if you understand what you did was really wrong.”
After the hearing had ended, Toviave asked Tarnow if he could say something else. Tarnow said OK, but Toviave then decided against it.
The judge also ordered Toviave to pay two of the children $60,000 each and provide $7,200 apiece to two victims for counseling. But both the judge and defense lawyer Randall Roberts said it seemed unlikely Toviave would be able to come up with the money. Roberts referred to Toviave as “penniless.”