Author accused of keeping sex slave
Terence Corcoran and Sean Gorman
POUND RIDGE - A 65-year-old restaurant-guide writer is accused of bringing young women from abroad to his northern Westchester County home under the guise that they would work for him, then forcing at least one of them into sexual slavery.
Joseph Yannai is the author of "The International Who's Who of Chefs 2004-2005," was charged with one count of first-degree sex abuse and two counts of second-degree labor trafficking, both felonies, according to the county District Attorney's Office.
Police say Yannai lured the primary victim, a 21-year-old from Hungary, to work at his home as his personal assistant. But after she arrived Feb. 18, she learned the real rules of the house: that her e-mails and personal phone calls would be limited and that she would get no spending money or access to transportation, police said.
Then there was that other expectation, that Yannai "threatened and coerced the victims to perform sexual favors," District Attorney Janet DiFiore said.
The woman also came across photos of Yannai with other women in his bedroom and learned that there had been six or seven other young women from various countries who worked at his home, police said.
A second victim, a woman from Brazil, also was working there at the time, police said.
Before leaving Hungary, the primary victim had made e-mail contact with another Hungarian who lives in Pound Ridge, police said, and on March 11, the 21-year-old victim contacted that person, who helped her escape.
The woman then went to Pound Ridge police, who launched an investigation before turning the case over to state police.
Yannai, who lives with his wife and has no children, surrendered yesterday at the state police barracks in Somers, Investigator Cornelius Merritt said.
Yannai, who was arraigned in Pound Ridge before Town Justice Edward Hand, posted $100,000 bail and is due back in Town Court on June 22.
Authorities say the victim learned of Yannai's job offer through a Web site for au pairs. In e-mail exchanges that began in December, Yannai posed as a young woman who was his former employee, the prosecutor's office said.
The woman was told that she would work as a personal assistant to a 64-year-old businessman and had the option of being paid $2,000 a month to work for him but live elsewhere, or live in his home, all expenses paid, and receive $20,000 at the end of the year, authorities said.
She chose the latter, officials said.
Both the Brazilian and Hungarian women are now staying in a shelter, officials said.
Yannai faces a maximum of seven years in state prison if convicted of the top count.
Yesterday, Yannai appeared friendly and hospitable when approached by The Journal News at his home. Although he declined to discuss the case, he invited a reporter and photographer inside the home, offering them drinks, introducing them to his dog, Sadie, and giving them a tour of the spacious living room, which was adorned with leather furniture, and offered a view of the many lily pads floating in a pond out back.
"You're giving me the opportunity to say something I've wanted to say for the last who knows how many years: No comment," he said, referring questions on the case to his lawyer.
His lawyer, John Pappalardo, said Yannai denies the allegations against him.
"There certainly was no sexual abuse or sexual slavery in this case," Pappalardo said.
Several news crews were parked outside Yannai's home on Route 124 yesterday.
Neighbors said they were stunned by the allegations.
"I can't really imagine he's done anything wrong," neighbor Ellen Abisch said, adding that Yannai had told her he had au pairs living and working at his home.
Another neighbor, Katherine Biagiarelli, who lives next-door to Yannai, said that when she came home from work a couple of weeks ago, she saw police taking items out of his home.
"They took some computers out, some hard drives," Biagiarelli said, adding that she did not know Yannai personally.
Another neighbor, Nancy Mutino, who described Yannai as "very rich," said she's friends with his wife, Elena. Mutino said the allegations were surprising.
"That blows my mind because he has a lovely young wife - a really lovely, young wife," she said.
Two things that are really important about this case:
1.) This adds to what people in the counter-trafficking movement try every day to convey through awareness campaigns: there is no one face of a trafficker; no one profession; no one age group or ethnicity. Just because someone in your neighborhood is a respected member of the community with a family, does not mean this person is incapable of being a trafficker. This is not the only case where neighbors in a suburban setting were shocked to find someone they knew in their immediate area was exploiting people in his/her home.
2.) This case shows that labor and sex trafficking can happen at the same time or at the least, that sex abuse can happen while being trafficked for labor exploitation. Creating hard differences between the two types of trafficking can sometimes seem purposeless when we're confronted with cases like this. It's also important to understand that women are trafficked for labor exploitation, which is often overlooked or underreported.