POUND RIDGE, N.Y. – The three victims of convicted sex trafficker Joseph Yannai have filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking $100 million in punitive damages from the former Pound Ridge resident and cookbook author.
Yannai, 68, was found guilty last June on counts that included coercion and enticement under the Mann Act, forced labor, attempted force labor, fraud in labor contracting, unlawful employment of aliens for immoral purposes and inducement of an alien to illegally enter and reside in the United States.
The lawsuit also names Yannai’s wife, Elena Fusillo, as a defendant although she was never charged with a crime.
Prosecutors said that Yannai lured young women from countries such as Hungary to come to his home to work as professional assistants. The women, who ranged in age from 18 to 25, said he sexually abused them by groping and kissing them and forcing them to perform sex acts. They said he intimidated them into staying by making threats of bodily harm if they refused his demands.
Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore said that one of the women managed to escape Yannai’s residence at 309 Salem Road on March 11, 2009 after she connected with another Hungarian citizen who lived in Pound Ridge on the Internet. After an investigation, Pound Ridge police rescued the women on March 23, 2009.
The three women filing the suit are from Brazil, Hungry and France. Mitchell Karlan of the New York City law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher is representing them.
“There’s no way to know what kind of assets Yannai and his wife have, but we are going to find out,” Karlan said.
Asked if he felt Yannai’s wife had been complicit in the scheme, Karlan said, “absolutely.”
The complaint, filed last week, contends that “Yannai contacted young women through the world, using websites designed to match women seeking work as an au pair with families in need of such worker. Yannai and Fusillo selected women based upon their photographs and willingness to live in the defendants' residences."
In the complaint, the victims said that Yannai posed as a woman named "Joanna" in e-mails with them after he found them on the websites aupair-world.com and greataupair.com. "Joanna” stated in the e-mails that she was a young woman who previously worked as Yannai's personal assistant.
The suit alleges that the victims were told that Yannai would train them to become successful businesswomen, promised them green cards and offered $2,000 per month for live-out services and $20,000 plus room and board to live in his house.
According to the complaint, the women also said that when they got there, Yannai made them work 12-hour days without pay, physically abused and threatened to kill them, enforced a no-bra dress code and controlled and monitored their contact with the outside world.
Yannai remains in jail, still awaiting sentencing. He faces up to life in prison.