"I'll tell you one thing: She's a Christian woman — I'll tell you that," says the short, middle-age Hispanic woman from her doorway, folding her arms across her chest and glancing at the pretty, well-kept house next door.
She's speaking about her neighbor, 51-year-old Haitian-American Maude Paulin, who was recently charged with, among other things, forced labor — slavery. It's not the kind of word you'd associate with the town of Cutler Bay, the South Miami-Dade city where both women live. Wedged between seemingly endless swampland to the east and west, and eerie stretches of half-built cookie-cutter McMansions to the south, the town is an outpost of solidly middle-class, solidly banal suburbia. Its population is three-quarters white, generally middle-age. Its residents are not particularly rich — the median income is about $50,000.
Generally speaking, Cutler Bay is the first rung on the long ladder to ex-urban paradise. Every evening, cars turn off Old Cutler Road and onto the town's sleepy streets, fill up the spacious driveways, and remain there until morning, when they head back north toward Miami. It isn't fancy, but it's peaceful, and that's the point.
Imagine the surprise then, on April 4, 2007, when FBI agents showed up at a quiet house here and arrested Maude and her mother, Evelyn Theodore, at their home at 19705 SW 87th Pl. Two others — Maude's sister, Claire Telasco, and Saintfort Paulin, Maude's ex-husband — were picked up elsewhere.
The four are charged with various felonies for bringing Simone Celestine, a 14-year-old orphan, into the United States illegally to work as an unpaid domestic servant. According to the indictment, Simone was beaten with closed fists, forced to shower outside with a garden hose, rented to other homes, and not allowed to attend school. All four suspects have pleaded not guilty. The case goes to trial in October. If convicted, Maude Paulin and Evelyn Theodore could face up to 40 years in jail, the others slightly less.
Human trafficking is a buzzword these days in federal law enforcement. The U.S. Department of State estimates that up to 800,000 people are illegally brought across international borders every year. Eighty percent of them are female, and 50 percent are minors. The overwhelming purpose of such trafficking is human slavery. In its press release describing the Paulins' indictment, the Department of Justice eagerly pointed out that since 2001, it has charged more than 300 alleged human traffickers and secured more than 200 convictions.
This case, however, has a uniquely Haitian spin. In the island nation, poor relatives — or sometimes children of other families — taken in as domestic servants are known as restaveks. In 2002 the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, a New York human rights group, released a study that estimated one in 10 children in Haiti is a restavek. The group calls it slavery. The practice remains largely confined to Haiti but in some cases has been discovered in the United States. In 1999 a Pembroke Pines family was accused of beating, raping, and enslaving a 12-year-old girl brought from the island. Homeowner Willy Pompee Jr. fled to Haiti before trial.
In the case of the house on SW 87th Place, the only resident not charged is Maude's daughter Erica, only two years older than Simone. If the allegations are true, it's something of a Cinderella story — a daughter who was well treated and a servant who was not.
Maude Paulin, who is a teacher at Campbell Drive Middle School in Homestead, was born Maude Theodore in Haiti in October 1955. Her resumé says she attended college and then seminary in Port-au-Prince. She came to the United States between 1979 and 1981 and moved to South Miami, where she held various secretarial positions for 10 years before earning an associate's degree at Miami-Dade Community College.
Saintfort and Maude Paulin were married May 17, 1983, according to public documents. Five months later Maude gave birth to Erica. The three lived at 12601 SW Eighth Ave. until 1991, when Saintfort filed for divorce. Eventually the Paulins changed their mind, court records show.
Saintfort, Maude, and Maude's mother, Evelyn, busied themselves with affairs in Haiti, where they apparently oversaw the funding and management of the D'Amitie orphanage. It's located in Ranquitte, a mountain town of 25,000 people with no electricity, no phone service, and citizens who are among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
Maude and Erica — as well as two other women, whom New Times was unable to reach — are the registered officers of Diomede D. Theodore Foundation, Inc., located in Homestead, which — its Website shows — is associated with the D'Amitie orphanage. The Website also claims the organization is a tax-exempt charity, but an IRS spokesman says it is not. (The foundation did not respond to a message left by phone).
Red Berry of Red Berry's Baseball World in West Kendall has visited the orphanage in Ranquitte. In September 1999 he accompanied Saintfort Paulin there to deliver supplies collected by kids at Berry's baseball camp. Berry says he knows the Paulins through Maude's father, Diomede Theodore, whom Berry knew as a local pastor. "They seemed like good people when I knew them," he says. Berry believes Theodore founded the orphanage and his children took over after his death. Berry stayed a week, attempting to teach nearly 100 orphans to play baseball.
Fourteen-year-old Simone was brought from the orphanage to the Paulin household that same year and told "she was to go to the United States to live and work for defendant Maude Paulin," according to a complaint signed by U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta and prosecutors Brent Tantillo and Edward Chung. The girl was then forced to work in both Maude's house and that of her sister, Claire Telasco. The sisters also charged people to have the teen work at their homes, the government alleges.
When Simone didn't want to work, the women beat her "with hands, closed fists, and other objects," the indictment claims. She was prohibited from using the phone, making friends, or leaving the house by herself; she had to remain in a closet or the garage when guests came. Nor was she enrolled in school (defense attorney Joel DeFabio declined to comment further than to say the Paulins "attempted" to enroll Simone). At some point she ran away and contacted authorities.
The government's evidence is unknown. But there is some indication Maude Paulin has resorted to corporal punishment before. In 2003 the school board suspended her without pay for 30 work days after an investigator substantiated rumors she had "hit [a student] with an electrical cord and [another student] with a textbook."
The next year Saintfort and Maude divorced. In a statement of personal finance, Maude describes her income at Campbell Drive as $33,280 annually; the house is valued at $260,500. The file does not include any financial statements from Saintfort, but the Paulins appear to have been a middle-class family. The divorce files describe one daughter, Erica; nowhere do they mention Simone.
Evidence in the public record is scant and leaves open several crucial questions. If Simone was brought into the country illegally, how was this accomplished? Why wasn't she enrolled in school or declared a dependent? But most important, what really went on behind the doors of the house on SW 87th Place?
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George Fernandez, a neighbor who lives across the street, doesn't have any answers. "I told [federal agents] I seen the two girls," he says. Standing in a comfortable white bathrobe as the sun begins to set on a weekday evening, he motions his palms downward, as if patting two invisible heads. "I saw them all the time," he says. "But whether they both went to school, that I cannot tell you."
Another neighbor, who declined to give her name, says this is the first time she has heard about any trouble with her neighbors. She recalls Simone, though. "She was very nice," the woman says. "She was always outside — she loved to garden. She helped me with my garden a couple of times." As to the charge of slavery, the woman has only this to offer: "Let me tell you — she was fat. If she was a slave, they certainly were feeding her well."
The next-door neighbor who defends Maude's Christianity is the only one of the three who knows the Paulins personally. She and Maude attend prayer group together. She doesn't believe the charges, she says, not for a minute. As to the yard work and the outdoor showers, she says, "They all worked in the garden. They all hosed down in the back yard."
The charges against her neighbor break her heart, she says. "They didn't even want the girl" (who's now in her early twenties), she emphasizes. "But her father died and they took her in. [Maude] tried to do a good deed, and it turned around and backfired on her."