Editor's note: See the Indy's Sept. 22 cover story about this case.
Bedri Kulla is a short, compact man with a shaved head and black-framed glasses, and at 49, not the kind of guy young, pretty Latinas whose lives are full of possibility flock to.
But that didn't stop him from trying—desperately—to woo a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. And when she ignored his advances, he attempted to have her deported.
Now Kulla is going to jail.
Judge N. Carlton Tilley sentenced Kulla, a former U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) employee, to one year in prison, the maximum sentence. Kulla had been charged with civil rights violations and with aggravated blackmail of an undocumented immigrant.
Last October, Kulla pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation charge and had been out on bond. He is scheduled to report to prison Nov. 5.
Kulla's attorney, Patrick Roberts, had asked the judge to sentence his client to probation, claiming that the woman was not blackmailed, because Kulla had not asked her for money or property.
However, Kulla did demand—repeatedly in dozens of ominous e-mails and text messages—that the woman engage in a sexual relationship with him or he would arrange for her to be deported.
Kulla was seeking something he could not have and was not entitled to, Tilley said. And by threatening her with deportation, Kulla had violated her rights.
Kulla mumbled throughout his testimony. He contended that he only wanted to be friends with the woman, but Tilley said it was clear Kulla wanted to date her.
"It's obvious that [the victim] is a very attractive woman, and Mr. Kulla is not the most attractive male," Tilley said. The judge also told Roberts that he was unmoved by the 45 letters sent on Kulla's behalf to vouch for his character. Kulla's brother-in-law denied his brother had done anything wrong, calling him a "shrewd judge of character."
Tilley called the letter "repulsive."
In asking the judge for leniency, Roberts said Kulla "has accepted responsibility for his actions."
However, when pressed by Federal Prosecutor Anand Ramaswamy, Kulla initially said he had sent only "some" of the dozens of e-mails and text messages, and made a point of examining each one as if he was unsure. Tilley called a recess. When the session resumed, Kulla admitted that he had sent every one.
The victim cried as she testified. "I still feel afraid," she said.
Kulla, who has been divorced four times, has a history of using his position to inappropriately contact young Latinas.
Experanza Wilson, a detention and deportation officer for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Washington, D.C., testified about an April 2008 incident involving Kulla, who was then working in an administrative position in the Washington field office. Wilson, who was Kulla's supervisor at the time, told the court that Kulla had given a young Latina who had come to the field office a note with his personal cell phone number and instructions to call him after 5 p.m. An attorney for the woman contacted Wilson, who in turn called the number and discovered it was Kulla's.
Wilson used surveillance footage from the lobby, which has since been destroyed, to identify the young woman to whom Kulla gave the note. "She was young, very pretty, very reserved and demure," Wilson said.
Kulla was very friendly with young female clients and charming with older women but gruff with men, Wilson testified. "He could be aggressive," Wilson said, adding that several of Kulla's colleagues had filed written complaints about his behavior toward them.
Wilson said she had been monitoring Kulla because he had overstepped his role several times, including receiving faxes that were addressed to "Officer" Kulla.
"I had many issues with Mr. Kulla," said Wilson, who had reported her concerns to her supervisors but never officially wrote him up.
After Kulla inappropriately gave the note to the young Latina, Wilson arranged for him to be transferred to a position that did not involve interacting with the public. So before his official reprimand was processed, Kulla resigned and found a job with the Durham office of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Since his arrest and firing from CIS last year, Kulla told the court it has been difficult for him to find a job. Since August, he has been working as a travel agent.
Ramaswamy argued that Kulla would have never known the woman was undocumented unless he had specifically looked her up on federal computers, which, in his position at CIS, he did not have the authorization to do.
Ramaswamy asked Tilley to consider in his ruling that Kulla had misrepresented his authority in an agency that requires undocumented immigrants to interact with it. In addition, Kulla's actions could damage the relationship between ICE and immigrants.
Tilley agreed. "The message has to be that you can't misuse your position," Tilley said. "I am seeking to deter all others who would be willing to use their public positions for private gain.
"It was obvious, the emotional distress of [the victim]," Tilley added. "I can only imagine the horror and nightmares she went through."