HOUSTON (CN) - A Nigerian couple was granted bond Tuesday after they were arrested and accused of enslaving a woman for two years in their Texas home and making her work 20-hour days.
Chudy Nsobundu, 56, and Sandra Nsobundu, 50, were arrested Monday and charged with forced labor violations, conspiracy to harbor an undocumented immigrant, visa fraud and withholding documents.
If convicted on all counts, they could be effectively sentenced to life in prison as the charges carry a maximum penalty of 70 years.
The couple allegedly enslaved a 37-year-old Nigerian woman from September 2013 to Oct. 10, 2015, when an anonymous tipster reported them to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. A case worker helped the woman flee the couple's house in the Houston suburb of Katy, according to a criminal complaint charging the husband and wife.
The Nsobundus are both naturalized U.S. citizens from Nigeria. That's where they met the alleged victim, called A.E. in court documents, and offered to pay her 20,000 Nigerian nairas a month, equal to $100, to be a nanny for their five kids, who range in age from 3 to 21, court records show.
The criminal complaint portrays the Nsobundus as controlling A.E.'s life almost down to the minute.
They called her "the idiot" and made her work from 5:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. cleaning house, making meals and watching their kids, but never paid her, the Southern Texas U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement.
"Mrs. Nsobundu told her that she was never to watch television or sit down during work hours, as she was not being paid to be lazy," the 17-page criminal complaint states.
They made her sleep on the floor, banned her from using hot water, restricted her to eating only leftovers and threatened to send her back to Nigeria, prosecutors claim.
Sandra Nsobundu allegedly got violent with A.E. for the most trifling of mistakes. She didn't like the socks A.E. put on her toddler, and she pulled A.E. to the ground by her hair, then took her slipper off and hit A.E.'s face with it, according to the complaint.
"Mrs. Nsobundu then said she would shoot her and kill her for not taking care of the babies how she wanted them cared for," the complaint states.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Johnson granted the Nsobundus bond at two separate hearings on Tuesday.
Chudy Nsobundu appeared before Johnson at 2 p.m. wearing black track pants, a long-sleeved gray polo shirt and shackles around his waist and ankles. He gave a quizzical look to onlookers in the gallery, the veins visible in his neck, and stumbled slightly as a U.S. marshal led him from a side bench to stand before the judge.
He spoke in a soft, heavily accented voice as Johnson grilled him about his finances to determine if he qualifies for a court-appointed attorney.
He told the judge that he makes $8,000 a month from his health care company and owns four cars and two Houston-area homes worth a total of $500,000. He said he uses one of the homes for his business and no one lives there.
Johnson, her curly-shoulder length brown hair framed by two dangling earrings, frowned at Nsobundu from the bench as he tiptoed around her questions, unwilling to disclose everything he owns without some prodding.
Prosecutors Julie Searle and Ruben Perez told the judge that he hadn't disclosed a 2011 Nissan that's registered in his name.
"It's in my name, but it's my wife's car," he said.
"Well that means you own it and you need to tell me all the things you own," Johnson said, her face reddening.
Nsobundu explained his reticence.
"The pretrial officer told me I don't have to disclose everything," he said, referring to the officer who prepared his pretrial report, a step required for all federal criminal defendants seeking bail.
"I understand that, but when you want a court-appointed attorney, you have to disclose your finances," Johnson said.
She stopped talking and moved her pen furiously across her desk, calculating his expenses. All that could be heard was a ticking clock, the murmur of two U.S. marshals talking in a corner, and the rustle of charging documents in the hands of other defendants patiently looking on after making initial appearances in their own cases.
Nsobundu stared down to his left at a corner of Johnson's bench as she computed.
Johnson denied him a court-appointed attorney because of his two houses and five cars. She ordered him released on a $50,000 bond, which can be obtained with a $5,000 deposit, over the objections of prosecutors, who argued that he is a flight risk because he travels often from the United States to Nigeria.
"We're still trying to figure out if there are more bank accounts, your honor," Perez told the judge.
Perez pressed his case against bond.
"The physical abuse that the victim suffered may be inflicted on members of his family based on his criminal history. Also, he hasn't been truthful with the court," the prosecutor said.
"I agree he's been evasive," Johnson said. But ultimately that wasn't enough to sway the judge, who quipped to Nsobundu, "So far you're winning by not saying anything."
Nsobundu tried to answer to his alleged criminal past, telling Johnson he was never charged with the offense that prosecutors mentioned, but she cut him off.
"You do have the right to remain silent; you're getting a bond so you don't have to talk about these other things," the judge said.
Johnson granted Nsobundu's wife bond during an earlier hearing Tuesday.
She ordered Chudy Nsobundu to surrender his passports, and restricted his travel to the Houston area. She set a counsel determination hearing for him for Friday and advised him to find an attorney.Follow @cam_langford
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.