Russian Women Say Online Romance Led to Trafficking

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Two Northern California men subjected a Russian woman and her daughter to backbreaking forced labor, assault and psychological abuse for 7 months after luring them to the United States with promises of joining a loving family, the women claim in Federal Court.

     Elizabeth Shuvalova claims Joseph Cunningham, of Clearlake, Calif., spent 2 years “wooing” her after they met through the online dating Web site eHarmony. She claims Cunningham made two trips to Poland to see her. Cunningham promised Elizabeth that she and her then-16-year-old daughter Natalya would join a loving and supporting family if she agreed to marry him.
     She says she accepted Cunningham’s proposal and spent her life’s savings on visas and travel documents, and that her daughter gave up her musical education in Russia to join her mother.
     But once at Cunningham’s rural Lake County residence, Elizabeth claims, Cunningham forced her and Natalya to work long hours without pay, and subjected them torrents of abuse when their work did not please him, including “bitch,” “dumb,” and “lazy-ass.” She claims Cunningham did not let Natalya leave his property for more than 2 months except to go to church with him, told her she was too stupid to go to school and demanded she spend 5 hours each day memorizing the dictionary.
     Elizabeth says that when she tried to intervene, Cunningham called her an “unprofessional dumb shit” and told Natalya that she would “regret it if she told anyone on the outside what happened on his property.”
     “As things worsened, Joe threatened plaintiffs with physical violence and death if they should disobey him or if they should tell anyone about what was going on inside the home,” according to the complaint.
     Elizabeth claims Cunningham asked Natalya to “assist him in getting rid of her mother” and told Elizabeth she could move back to Russia if she did not want to pay for food and heat. Cunningham threw furniture and plates at them and threatened them with guns and knives he left lying around the house, the women say.
Elizabeth says Cunningham locked Natalya out of the house “for hours daily,” during which time she was “forced to move around earth, large rocks and stones, [and]remove brush and debris on the large, rural property. She was forced to do this work 8-10 hours a day or more, usually seven days per week.”
     Elizabeth claims that Cunningham forced her “to massage his naked body for hours, in his bedroom behind closed, and often locked doors … He would force her to straddle his naked body and suggested that Liza remove her clothing. During these massages, Joe often told Liza that she should feel comfortable walking around the house naked. Natalya was often locked out of the house during these sessions.”
     Cunningham’s 35-year-old son, Dan Cunningham, stayed at his father’s residence part-time, during which he would fondle Natalya and force her to sit on his lap, telling her he was a virgin, that she could please him a lot and he wanted to be her boyfriend, according to the complaint. “He forcibly kissed and fondled her,” according to the complaint, which adds that Dan “is a large man who claims to weigh 400 pounds and is well over 6 feet tall.”
     The women say they escaped “involuntary servitude” after 7 months by sneaking off the property with help from friends, then hid out at a Sonoma County women’s shelter. The Shuvalovas sued the Cunninghams under the Traffic Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act, and seek compensatory and punitive damages, unpaid wages and statutory penalties. They are represented by Nancy Palandati of Palandati and Goldstone in Santa Rosa.

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