Sex Slavery. . .Here?
Pound Ridge reels as it plays home to Westchester’s first-ever human trafficking case.
For those who live in the cities and towns of Southern Westchester, a visit to Pound Ridge might feel like a trip to another part of the country, not the county. It is a bucolic town with small farms and sprawling estates around seemingly every bend of its serpentine sidewalk-free roads. Beautiful homes are set far apart on large, rolling properties, often with thick woods and charming stone walls separating one house from another.
The town, in which the median annual family income is a bit over $158,000, is wedged in the northeastern corner of Westchester, bordering Connecticut to the east where it comes up against the towns of New Canaan and Northern Stamford. On the New York side, it borders Bedford and South Salem. Pound Ridge, with a population of some 5,000, hasn’t one traffic light in its 23 square miles.
Christine Crabtree, 24, grew up at 338 Salem Road in a large Victorian house that sits well back from the road. “Part of the reason my parents moved here was the privacy and quiet,” Crabtree says.
Privacy and quiet are wonderful. But occasionally, privacy and quiet provide the opportunity for clandestine, criminal acts.
Joseph Yannai, a 66-year-old, academic-looking, mostly bald man with a round face and a white beard, lives down the road from Crabtree, at 309 Salem. In March of last year, in what only can be described as shocking, Yannai, who is married with no children, was arrested and charged with one count of first-degree sex abuse and two counts of second-degree labor trafficking—for allegedly luring women to the United States under false pretenses and turning them into sex slaves. Yannai’s attorney, John Pappalardo of Pappalardo and Pappalardo in Scarsdale, maintains his client is innocent.
The case broke when a 21-year-old Hungarian woman was spotted fleeing Yannai’s property three weeks after arriving there; she was aided by a Hungarian man she had contacted through emails before leaving Hungary. The woman, who had sought a job in the States via an au pair website, allegedly was promised $2,000 a month by Yannai to work for him and live wherever she pleased or, if she preferred, to be a live-in employee and receive a $20,000 bonus at the end of the year and have all her expenses paid. But when she arrived in February 2009, Yannai, police say, informed the woman that she would have no expenses paid and almost no contact with the outside world.
According to the Westchester District Attorney’s Office, the woman was threatened and coerced into performing sexual favors for Yannai. On March 9, a grandy jury handed down a 20-count indictment against Yannai, which included a sodomy charge and three counts of labor trafficking relating to three separate victims: the Hungarian woman, a Brazilian woman, and a French woman. He could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
The Pound Ridge Police Department was the first law-enforcement agency to be contacted about the alleged crimes. “We got a call from a man who is a caretaker of a property, who happened to see this girl running,” Police Chief David Ryan recalls. “He told us the girl had been ‘held captive.’ Eventually we contacted the State Police, did a joint investigation, compiled some data, and got a search warrant. At the time we executed the search warrant, we found another female there, another had just left, and between taking statements from the three of them, it evolved into what is now a human trafficking case.”
Police say the young Hungarian woman, whose name has not been released, told them that she saw pictures of Yannai with six or seven other women during the time she was at his house, women whom authorities believe may have been held illegally as well. Yannai is accused of keeping these women isolated from the outside world—“prisoners without bars,” as Ryan calls them. Although he declined to discuss the details of the case, Ryan did say that the way the accused lured women to the U.S. “was really creative.”
Though the Pound Ridge matter is the first-ever human trafficking case in Westchester, Yannai had been in the back of Ryan’s mind for the past six years. “The case initially came to our attention when we received a call from a woman saying that her daughter was there,” Ryan recalls. “We didn’t have anything to go on, but we felt there was something there.
“We went to interview Mr. Yannai, but the District Attorney didn’t think there was enough to prosecute it. You know, sometimes you interview someone and you know something is wrong. It’s your gut more than anything.” But for years, nothing materialized. Nothing drew the police to Yannai’s house. There were no complaints, no reports of any kind—until that serendipitous call from the caretaker.
Ryan, whose career began in 1983 in Putnam County, where he worked undercover for four years conducting narcotics, organized crime, and gambling investigations, says the Yannai case is one of the most challenging of his career, largely because human trafficking laws are so new.
Yannai is a mystery to many who live nearby. Crabtree, for instance, says she was familiar with the house but couldn’t remember anyone in her family ever having contact with the man. She first heard about the case from her father. “It’s just so gross that it could have happened here,” she says. A man who lives across the road from Yannai at 295 Salem, who declined to give his name, says that he has “seen Yannai” but knows nothing about him.
George Rodriguez, who lives two doors down from Yannai, reports that he did exchange in small neighborly pleasantries with Yannai and once had a short conversation with him at a local market. “He seemed uncomfortable, ill-at-ease,” Rodriguez recalls. “It’s easy to look back and say this now, but I really did get the feeling he just wanted to be left alone.”
Rodriguez has a daughter the same age as the Hungarian woman and says his daughter was deeply disturbed when the story broke. “It’s God-awful that this might have happened in our neighborhood. We took things for granted here. It’s been a bitter pill to swallow, and it’s really cast a pall on the comfort we feel here.”
However, not everyone was surprised to learn that bad things can take place in nice little towns. Adam Free, part-owner of Plum Plums Cheese Shop in town, admits he was as disturbed as anybody about the allegations but was never under the impression that his hometown is immune from depravity. “Bad people can live anywhere.”
Details about Yannai’s life are difficult to come by. He is the author of The International Who’s Who of Chefs, 2004-2005, a book that sells for $80 on Amazon.com. It is the only book published by IWWC, which one assumes stands for International Who’s Who of Chefs. A Google search for IWWC turns up no relevant results, which likely means the book was self-published.
Driving by Yannai’s house now, it’s hard to imagine that heinous acts may have taken place inside. The reddish-brown house looks like a sweet cabin and is relatively small by Pound Ridge standards. Several old cars sit in the driveway. It is surrounded by woods on either side, with a large pond in the backyard. Standing near the house on Salem Road, it would be entirely possible not to hear a sound for a long while.
Pappalardo says a trial is unlikely to start sooner than six months from now and the trial itself could push on months after that. Some undoubtedly will be fascinated by the case, waiting anxiously to hear new details. Many Westchester residents, however, may feel they’ve already heard too much.
Eric Lebowitz recently moved to Rye, and is thoroughly enjoying both his new apartment and the food on Purchase Street. This is his second story for Westchester Magazine. A former staffer at the Journal News, his work also has appeared in
amNewYork and on the websites of Newsday and the Chicago Tribune.