Lured to the United States with the promise of easy money, the slender young man from Hungary spent more than a year confined to bedrooms in New York and Miami — forced to have sex with men around the clock.
His captors raped him. One of the ringleaders, who sometimes wielded a sword, threatened him and his family in Hungary with bloodshed. If he slept with enough johns, the traffickers might give him extra food or a few cigarettes.
Even today, the ordeal has left his psyche in tatters, the 24-year-old told a judge on Tuesday.
“It’s really hard for me to socialize, to mingle with people,” he testified through a Hungarian interpreter. “I started drinking heavily to try and forget. I lost all my friends.”
His story — and the accounts of two other Hungarian men forced into sex slavery — convinced a Miami-Dade judge to sentence one of the ringleaders, Andras Janos Vass, to just over 11 years in state prison for human trafficking.
Vass’ punishment marks the first prison sentence in Florida for someone convicted of the human trafficking of gay men. Florida’s tougher human trafficking law went into effect in 2012.
Tuesday’s court hearing drew over a dozen supporters from several South Florida gay, lesbian and transgender rights groups, some who carried small rainbow flags.
“All of them are survivors of different crimes for being gay or transgender. This is a huge deal,” said Francesco Duberli of Miami’s Survivors Pathway Organization. “We’re honored to be here.”
The young male victim had returned to Hungary but was flown to Miami to testify in Tuesday’s hearing. His airfare was paid for by Ark of Freedom, a Fort Lauderdale group that supports male victims of human trafficking.
The man plans to stay in South Florida. “We will support him and make sure he enjoys the best possible life here,” said Nathan Earl, who heads Ark of Freedom.
As for Vass, prosecutors say he and two other men, Gabor Acs and Viktor Berki, lured male victims from Hungary, where most lived in poverty. Acs and Berki are still awaiting trial.
According to authorities, the ringleaders met two victims in Hungary through a website called GayRomeo.com. Another victim was “living with gypsies” as a male prostitute when he met Acs through Facebook.
In 2012, the three victims, all in their early 20s, were flown to New York City to work in what they believed was a legal business in the United States. The victims “believed they would only be in New York for a few months to make tens of thousands of dollars before returning to their homeland and their families,” Homeland Security Investigations agent Melissa Pavlikowski wrote in an arrest warrant.
Acs, Berki and Vass ran a company called Never Sleep Inc.
But in New York, the young men were forced to live in a cramped one-bedroom apartment while performing sex acts around the clock, sometimes with johns, other times on live Web cameras, according to the arrest warrant.
“What happened was absolute terror,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Brenda Mezick told the judge.
Up to eight men lived and worked in the apartment. Their travel documents were seized by Berki, who frequently reminded them he was a policeman in Hungary.
“I was under their control, all day, all night,” one victim said, in a statement read to the court. “They used me like I was a machine. They sold me to strangers. I was not allowed to be tired. I was not allowed to be sad.”
In August 2012, the group moved to Miami, where the ringleaders insisted the men would no longer be prostituting. But the operation resumed in a home in the 13300 block of Northwest Eighth Lane.
Vass, 26, could have gotten a harsher penalty — up to 155 years in prison.
Before becoming an active participant in the ring, Vass himself was victimized by the other two men, forced to marry one. “He wasn’t the one who committed the violence,” defense lawyer Adam Goodman said.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Richard Hersch sentenced Vass to roughly the bottom of the sentencing guidelines — just over 140 months in state prison.
“I know very well that I am culpable,” Vass told the court, also through an interpreter. “After I do my time, I would like to start a new clean life and I’m asking for God’s help and I pray every day for forgiveness.”