Two immigrant stories collided in federal court: one about a man from Italy with no formal education who created a family business in Fair Haven—and another about a family of Ecuadorian immigrants who claim he verbally, physically and sexually abused them while they worked in his bakery.
The stories emerged Thursday afternoon in Courtroom 4 of U.S. District Court in New Haven, where Antonio “Tony” DiBenedetto was sentenced before Judge Mark R. Kravitz Thursday afternoon.
DiBenedetto, 65, of North Branford, pleaded guilty on Jan. 26, 2011 to one count of unlawful employment of aliens at the bakery he runs in Fair Haven. But that ends only his criminal case; he still faces two civil lawsuits from former workers, involving more serious allegations.
DiBenedetto owns Rocco’s Bakery, a well-known mom-and-pop Italian pastry shop at 432 Ferry St., in what used to be a largely Italian-American community now increasingly populated by Latinos.
In his plea, DiBenedetto admitted to employing at least 10 people at his Fair Haven bakery and Meriden warehouse between May 2007 through May 2008, knowing they had entered the country unlawfully and were not allowed to work.
The criminal investigation began after an Ecuadorian immigrant who had worked at Rocco’s came forward in 2008 with allegations of forced labor and sexual abuse. The federal government granted her family safety as they proceeded with a civil suit against DiBenedetto. The family claims the owners failed to pay them for forced overtime, kept them trapped in apartments above the bakery, regularly threatened them, and sexually harassed the women. DiBenedetto denies those charges.
The “bakery slaves” lawsuit was put on hold for nearly four years as the federal government went forward with criminal proceedings; read more about it here.
Heading into Thursday’s sentencing, DiBenedetto faced up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
He arrived at the courthouse at 12:30 p.m., wearing jeans and a black leather jacket. A marshal escorted him to the third floor, where a handful of friends and his son, Giovanni, awaited him. They chatted in Neapoletan dialect as they waited for the judge to arrive.
The courtroom quickly filled with DiBenedetto’s supporters, most shaking hands and greeting each other in their native Italian tongue.
DiBenedetto’s lawyer, Hugh Keefe, greeted the supporters and looked for their names on a list of witnesses willing to testify on the defendant’s behalf.
“Lino? What is that short for?” Keefe asked one elderly man.
“Lino,” replied the man. “Pasquale Lino Liuzzi.”
At 12:58, just before court started, Father James Manship of St. Rose of Lima Church walked in with five other immigrants—the Ecuadorians who fled Rocco’s in 2008 as they came forward with allegations of abuse. The woman who blew the whistle on DiBenedetto came first to Manship’s church for help back in 2008, then got connected with New Haven legal aid lawyers and the federal government.
Two other members of the family, who have filed a civil suit with a separate lawyer, entered later, accompanied by Ecuadorian activist Dixon Jimenez. They sat quietly on the other side of the room.
Before court started, Keefe led DiBenedetto to the defendant’s table, and told him to take off his leather jacket on a chair.
American Dream’s “Personification”
Judge Kravitz opened the hearing at 1:04 p.m.
“We have lots of letters” in support of the defendant, “and I’ve read every single one of them,” said Kravitz, his voice shaky with the effects of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The court received 35 letters from friends, family and public officials; read them here, at the end of the defense’s sentencing memorandum.
Keefe had sought to suppress five other statements, sent in by the alleged victims. Kravitz announced he had denied Keefe’s motion and considers the statements relevant to the sentencing.
“Are you prepared to proceed with the sentencing today?” Kravitz said, turning to DiBenedetto. The defendant’s son whispered a translation in his ear.
“Yes,” DiBenedetto replied.
Keefe began making his case for why his client should be spared jail time. He started by outlining 11 medical conditions, including severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. DiBenedetto continues to smoke 3 packs of cigarettes per day, as he has for 50 years, Keefe told the court.
“My mother died of COPD,” interjected Judge Kravitz. “So you should give up the cigarettes.”
Keefe proceeded with the main arc of his argument—that DiBenedetto is a generous, hard-working immigrant, “the personification of the American dream.”
DiBenedetto was born in 1946 in Ruviano, Italy, in the countryside outside Naples.
For the first 20 years of his life, he labored along with six siblings and his parents on a farm. They lived in a single-family home on the farm, without electricity or plumbing, Keefe wrote in the sentencing memo.
DiBenedetto married his wife Anna in 1970. On Aug. 10 of that year, when DiBenedetto was 24 years old, they moved to the U.S. The immigrant “immediately” found work as washing dishes at the DiSorbo Bakery in Hamden, where he trained as a baker for 12 years, Keefe said.
In 1982 he struck out on his own: He and his wife, Anna, opened Rocco’s Bakery. They put in long hours there, working 6 to 7 days per week for the past 30 years, Keefe said. He credited the DiBenedettos with sticking with the business even as other white-owned businesses fled the area.
DiBenedetto has been robbed five times at the bakery, Keefe said. Most recently on Jan. 20, he pulled out a gun and scared off a would-be robber who tried to rip off the store.
At Rocco’s, DiBenedetto has been known as a “generous and charitable man,” Keefe argued: “if anybody in that neighborhood that he knows of has a funeral or a wedding, he sends pastries. He’s loved, particularly by the Italian community in that area.”
Keefe said his client has never had any schooling and doesn’t make much money. In 2010, he made $57,000, Keefe said. “He’s managed to squeeze that little bakery into supporting” his family.
“What do you do with a fellow like this?” Keefe asked. He has no criminal record. “He’s done very good for his community. To incarcerate him would be a meaningless gesture.” His client doesn’t need rehabilitation, Keefe argued, because he is already sorry for what he did.
He instructed DiBenedetto to take the stand. DiBenedetto looked back at his son, who stood ready to translate.
“See if you can say it in English,” Keefe advised.
“I’m very sorry,” DiBenedetto said. He said he would “no do it anymore. That’s all it is.”
“I accept your apology,” the judge replied.
In the end, only one person stood to speak on DiBenedetto’s behalf. Joseph Levine, his accountant, called him “one of the most generous people I know.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Morabito replied that good deeds should be taken into account, but “it’s obviously a serious crime and a serious problem in this country.” He asked the judge to impose a punishment according to the sentencing guidelines, which recommend a term of imprisonment from between 10 and 18 months.
Morabito said even if DiBenedetto denies the workers’ allegations, those should also be taken into account. The victims claim they were “subjected to verbal, sexual, physical abuse. For their sake, it’s important that they be put on the record.”
Judge Kravitz agreed. “I’ve read the victims’ statements and I assume that they’re true and the living conditions and the slang that were slung at the victims is disturbing to me,” he said.
The victims declined to speak in court Thursday.
Sheila Hayre, the lawyer for the first five who filed a civil suit against DiBenedetto, said her clients were terrified to be so close to the man who had abused them and did not want to take the stand.
She later recapped what the statements entail—a story of new immigrants who were exploited by a man who had immigrated to the U.S. just 40 years before.
The statements describe “verbal abuse, sexual abuse, unwanted touching, taking off clothes in the bakery, kids having to work when they were 13, 14.” Small, thin children who had “just come across the border” had to carry 50-pound sacks of flour, operate heavy machinery, and go into the freezer, she said.
The family worked long hours and was not paid according to what state and federal law require, Hayre charged.
DiBenedetto “adamantly” denies those charges, Keefe said in court. He asked the judge to depart from the sentencing guidelines based on his client’s “strong and exceptional employment,” medical condition, “extraordinary good works,” his crime-free life,” and the potential risk of losing his job and his employees’ jobs if he goes to prison.
In making his final sentence, Kravitz said he would take those other factors into consideration, but he couldn’t ignore the stories from the next generation of immigrants, the ones that have claimed abuse.
“The victims’ statements are disturbing to me,” Kravitz told DiBenedetto, “and they should be disturbing to you as well.”
“I’m going to take into account your health and your good works, but treating aliens the way the victims describe it is disturbing to me and very sad.”
After a half-hour hearing, he sentenced DiBenedetto to three years’ probation and 150 hours of community service. If DiBenedetto is found guilty of any crime during that period, he faces up to two years in prison.
Kravitz declined to impose the up to $250,000 in fines he is allowed to by law.
“I’m not going to impose a fine because I would like you to make restitution to the victims, OK?”
Kravitz said the defense and prosecution now have 30 days to come to an settlement on forfeiture of assets. Potentially any property that was used in abetting the crime—including the bakeries and homes where the immigrants lived—could be seized by the government. If the two parties can’t strike a deal on the amount of forfeiture, the matter will be settled in court.
This Goes On In Other Places
Kravitz’ ruling Thursday paves the way for the civil suit to move forward.
Hayre said her clients have been waiting four years for this day. She said she was disappointed that the government chose to pursue only one count of employing an “alien” instead of the graver offenses—of “exploiting” workers in slavery while abusing them and denying them due wages.
“This is something that is going on in other places,” Hayre said, “and this is something our government needs to be concerned about.”
She said she found “hope” in Kravitz’s words when he called the victims’ statements “disturbing.” Kravitz is the same judge who will adjudicate the two civil complaints.
“I finally feel we may see some justice for these clients.”
Outside the courthouse, Keefe called the workers’ stories “baseless” allegations that have never been tested under oath in court. Hayre countered that the victims’ statements are written in sworn, notarized affidavits.
Keefe said he looks forward to bringing the workers on the stand.
DiBenedetto “was just trying to help people and they turned on him,” Keefe said. “That’s what this case is about.”