Nobody disputes this: Three gay Hungarian men, living in crushing poverty in a country intolerant of their lifestyle, moved to the United States with hopes of a better life.
Prosecutors argue they were duped, held in virtual slavery, forced to perform around-the-clock sex acts for webcams, or sell their bodies to johns in New York and Miami. They hardly saw any money, barely ever left the sex dens and ate only bunless hot dogs and Ramen noodles for meals.
“They were strangers in a strange land,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Brenda Mezick told jurors Wednesday on the first day of trial for two fellow Hungarians charged with human trafficking. “They were scared. They were scared all the time.”
But defense lawyers for Viktor Berki and Gabor Acs, also gay Hungarian men alleged to have run the sex-slave ring, insisted that the victims fabricated the supposed mistreatment as a way to avoid being deported back to Hungary.
“This is nothing but a group of young gay men, Hungarian men, escaping persecution in their country,” Berki’s lawyer, Ronald Manto, told jurors. “They won’t freely admit it but they knew exactly what they were doing.”
“They were not victims. If these three men were brutalized, like the state described, they would have asked for help,” said Acs’ lawyer, Elibet Caballero. “They were not that dumb.”
Wednesday was the start of testimony in the trial of Berki and Acs in an ongoing case that has been hailed as a landmark for Florida human-trafficking prosecutions — the first such case for gay male victims.
Prosecutors have already won a conviction against a third man involved in the ring. In 2015, Andras Janos Vass was convicted at trial and sentenced to just over 11 years in prison.
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.
One of the victims had a cleft palate and needed the money. “He wanted to fix his face,” Mezick told jurors.
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,” according to court documents.
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.
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.
“They believed he would retaliate against their families, and they would have people in Hungary watch them, even if they returned,” Mezick said. “They did not understand what options they really had.”
In August 2012, the group moved to Miami, where, the young men said, the ringleaders continued to force them to prostitute and do webcam work inside a home on the 13300 block of Northwest Eighth Lane.
But defense lawyers said the men only claimed to be victims after a woman posing as an immigration attorney advised them they could stay in the country legally if they cooperated with authorities.
“It is undisputed they were coming here to work in the sex industry — the consensual webcam sex industry,” Caballero said. “They were OK making money that way.”
The trial continues Thursday before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Richard Hersch.