Disclosure: The victim's name has been omitted in order to protect her safety. The Indy has removed the victim's name from court documents and supporting materials posted online.
The woman was just 19 when she caught a bus from a city suburb in El Salvador through Guatemala to the Mexican border. From there she took a train that carried her across Mexico to the U.S., where she boarded a bus that was heading to North Carolina and her final destination, Durham.
She made the journey mostly alone. She had friends who left El Salvador with her, but they scattered once they crossed into Mexico. She traveled a route rife with smugglers and sex traffickers and drug cartels, and says there were times she was afraid she would die. "I thought if something happens to me, I won't be able to see my mother again."
She avoided the dangers en route to America, but four years after she arrived, in 2009, she was blackmailed by a man who claimed to be an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent. Over several months, in dozens of ominous e-mails and text messages, he threatened to have her deported unless she had a sexual relationship with him.
Last October, Bedri Kulla, who was born in Canada but is a U.S. citizen, pled guilty in federal court on charges of violating her civil rights. As part of the plea agreement, the court can dismiss the blackmail charge. Kulla's sentencing hearing is scheduled for Sept. 24.
Yet since his release last July, after posting $1,000 of a $100,000 bond, Kulla has continued to contact other Latinas, specifically members of the Dream Team, three women hunger strikers who camped out in Raleigh to protest the lack of immigration reform. But this story is about more than one woman and one man's obsession with her. The 287(g) and Secure Communities programs have been touted as a way for local law enforcement to sweep U.S. streets of undocumented immigrants who are felons and violent criminals.
That's not how it works: 87 percent of all individuals picked up in participating counties in North Carolina were booked on infractions of driving without a license, which they cannot legally obtain, according to the Latino Migration Project's latest report.
Instead of ridding America of foreign felons, the 287(g) and Secure Communities programs have actually allowed criminals to victimize undocumented immigrants, who confront a dilemma: Do they report the incidents to police and risk deportation? Or do they continue to be victimized?
The woman does not regret her choice.
She sits on the edge of a brown couch in her small one-bedroom apartment in Chapel Hill, her thick black hair parted and pulled into a ponytail. Around her neck she wears a gold necklace with a medallion of an angel. At 24, she looks like a college student or a young professional, and when she smiles, dimples crease her cheeks.
Last year, the woman, who has lived in North Carolina since 2005, tried to expand her social life by joining Univision, a quasi-Facebook website that reaches Spanish-speaking people. Soon after joining Univision in January 2009, she began exchanging e-mails with Kulla, 50, who claimed to be a flight attendant and to be 10 years younger than his actual age.
The woman says Kulla pressured her to meet him in person, and so she finally agreed to have coffee with him at a restaurant at the Streets at Southpoint mall in Durham that spring. She recalls the meeting as being short and perfunctory. Kulla asked her about her life in El Salvador and let her know he was interested in a serious relationship. According to federal court records, Kulla told her that he wanted her to be his girlfriend. "She replied she would have to get to know him first," the documents state, "but he claimed that was not the way relationships worked in the United States."
His advances rebuffed, Kulla then brandished a badge and told her he was an immigration officer. He said he had worked in Virginia deporting people, and he asked her to write down her full name on a piece of paper so he could look her up in the computer. Afraid of defying him, she wrote down her name, and the coffee ended. "I felt he was trying to manipulate me," she says, with the assistance of an interpreter.
Kulla's claims were partially true. He did work as an Immigration Services Officer for the Durham branch of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), a federal agency under the Department of Homeland Security that helps people who want to legally immigrate to the U.S. However, he was not employed by ICE as a deportation officer, nor was he capable of deporting immigrants.
The day after their meeting in Durham, she went to work. She was shocked when Kulla showed up at the Chapel Hill restaurant where she worked with a bouquet of flowers in one hand and, in the other, a piece of paper with her name on it—a deportation order from December 2005.
Her English is limited, and Kulla does not speak Spanish, but he made his intentions clear a few hours later when he sent her a text message. [Editor's note: Text messages are verbatim and contain misspellings.] It read: "Do you want stay and sleep my apartment Sunday night and Monday morning you go work from my apartment?"
She did not respond.
Two days later, he sent her another text: "Hi I asked you question yesterday and you never answered me. Tell me your intension with me? ... Bedri."
And 22 minutes after that, another text: "I care for you. You have only 2 options 1 get marrief in future or 2 go back your country. You need be careful driving if they stop you and check good they the Police will see you have deporation order and call ICE and they will send you back. I do not want anything bad for you only good."
Throughout the spring, Kulla's messages grew angrier. "When you going explain your actions and lies?" he wrote.
" ... you need talk to me and explain why you played with me remember you have deportation order talk to me."
She refused to reply to Kulla's texts and e-mails, yet she was afraid to report him to the police for fear they would not believe her story and insist on removing her from the country.
But she says she would have chosen deportation over giving in to Kulla's sexual demands.
As a young girl, she says, her uncle sexually abused her. While that experience was traumatic, it also gave her the resolve to say no to Kulla's sexual demands: "I felt I'd rather be forced to go back to my country than to let somebody do to me what I didn't want."
She arrived in America four years ago—alone. "I didn't have any money, and I was missing my mother. It was very hard," she says.
She chose to leave her country because her mother's health was deteriorating and her mother could no longer work. The family could not afford a doctor.
Her family is among the more than 7 million El Salvadorans—48 percent of the country's population—who live in poverty, according to a 2009 Congressional report. A quarter of El Salvadorans polled said they feel they must migrate in search of work.
At the U.S. border, she says, she gave immigration agents her name. They issued her papers that allowed her to stay a few weeks in the U.S. She promptly began looking for work and building a new life.
Within weeks, her papers expired, and a judge ordered her to be removed in December 2005. She says she remembers receiving the document in the mail, but she could not read it, nor did she know where to go. So she continued working, but the order remained in the federal immigration system.
She held low-paying service jobs, often working from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at one job, and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. at the second. She rarely had a day off or a full night's rest. She sent money to her mother and bought her a bed, a refrigerator, food and other simple amenities.
But in 2008, her own health began failing, and she could no longer ignore the chronic symptoms of fatigue, back pain, nausea and vomiting. She finally went to Duke Hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with acute kidney failure. Surgeons promptly placed a tube in her kidney so that it could drain the accumulation of waste to a bag outside her body. Nevertheless, she continued to work. "What was I going to do? I had to find some way to pay my bills and there wasn't anyone who was going to take care of me," she says.
Shortly after her release from the hospital, she says, she came home from work to find police officers arresting her roommates, who were undocumented, in a rental house in Durham. (The Wake County Jail has a record of her arrest on immigration charges. Jail officials told the Indy that the Raleigh Police Department was the arresting agency. However, RPD has no report of the incident. Police can cross jurisdictions to make arrests in immigration cases, especially because the Wake County Sheriff's Department and jail participate in 287(g).
She says police ordered her out of her car, arrested her and took her to Wake County Jail, where she was placed on a detention retainer. She says the officers that arrested her wanted to deport her immediately, but an ICE agent intervened and said she couldn't be sent back to El Salvador because of her serious health issues.
"I was in so much pain," she says. "I spent the whole time crying." Without her medicine, the fluid leaving her kidney and filling the bag attached to her body turned from a clear liquid to blood. "They wouldn't let me go, and I was hurting. They could see I was in pain, but nobody wanted to help me."
Twenty-four hours later, police released her after ICE issued an Order of Supervision that allowed her to temporarily stay in the U.S. and work legally, while requiring her to check in with immigration officials. After that night, all but one of her housemates vanished. She believes they were deported, and, despite the judge's order, she wondered too if she would be sent back.
In 1996, the Immigration and Nationality Act was amended to add Section 287(g), which allows local police departments to enforce federal immigration laws. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security launched Secure Communities, which allows county jail officials to identify potential undocumented immigrants. Forty-eight law enforcement agencies in North Carolina participate in one or both programs, including the Wake and Orange County sheriff's departments and the Durham Police Department.
Since local police departments have become de facto border agents, undocumented immigrants no longer feel they can report crimes—those they witness or those in which they are victims.
"Undocumented immigrants, being forced to live outside the law are easy victims of any sort of crime because of their status," says Domenic Powell, a volunteer with the DREAM Team. The team is part of a national movement lobbying the federal government to pass the DREAM Act so that children who were brought to the U.S. illegally as minors can earn the right to remain legally and get jobs, go to school and raise families here.
On Tuesday, the DREAM Act died in the U.S. Senate.
"Many community members we serve tell us that they are scared to trust our public institutions, such as 911 services and police officers, for fear of deportation," says Colleen Blue, program director of El Centro Hispano, a Latino advocacy group with offices in Durham and Carrboro. "Many immigrants in general experience social isolation, which makes them more vulnerable to abuse."
Sabrina Garcia, domestic violence and sexual assault specialist with the Chapel Hill Police Department, says these individuals are targets for predators who know their victims would be reluctant to report abuse.
"It took tremendous courage [for her to report the crime], because once we identified her, she could get deported—that was the risk she ran," Garcia says.
Garcia says that "predators, such as this person [Kulla], look for advantageous vulnerability, and individuals that would not be technically missed.
"If we don't change the climate and look beyond and see the human rights violations, on some strange level we aid these kinds of predators," Garcia adds, "and we create an environment where victims are being victimized by our own laws."
In April 2009, the woman's kidney disease had worsened and so had Kulla's harassment. In preparation for her second surgery, she spoke with Jennifer Harrilll, a social worker at Duke Hospital who coordinates the Latino Health Project, about Kulla's threats.
Harrill put her in touch with Marty Rosenbluth, a staff attorney with the Durham-based nonprofit Southern Coalition for Social Justice. "Part of the problem was that she was afraid to go into the hospital because she was worried Bedri would find her there," Rosenbluth says. "One of the reasons that the social worker contacted us was that she was worried that the woman wouldn't come into the hospital even though she needed the surgery urgently."
Initially, Rosenbluth had to ascertain how dangerous Kulla's threats were, if he really worked for ICE and if he had the authority to deport her. Kulla had used his real name and a photo in his communication with her, yet he was posing as a federal official.
"When we first got the case, I thought there was no possible way an employee of the Department of Homeland Security would be stupid enough to use their own photo and real name," says Rosenbluth, who initially suspected an outside contractor had found access to ICE computers and pulled up the woman's information.
Rosenbluth arranged for her to be given an alias during her hospital stay, and he filed a John Doe complaint with Garcia of the Chapel Hill Police Department.
"We collaborated because of my familiarity with harassment and stalking," says Garcia, "and at that point, she was extremely afraid and hesitant of speaking with law enforcement officials, so Marty was her buffer while she gained trust."
The woman says she was afraid Kulla would find her in the hospital, and the "police wouldn't believe me. It would be his word against mine."
Eventually, she felt reassured and agreed to undergo the operation. Rosenbluth provided Kulla's photo to the security officials and nurses at Duke Hospitals. By this point, Rosenbluth and Garcia had determined that Kulla worked for CIS, but not ICE, and didn't have the authority to deport the woman. However, he could access ICE computers, which is how he obtained her 2005 deportation order—conveniently overlooking the 2008 Order of Supervision that let her remain in the country.
Kulla continued to send ominous e-mails and texts. On April 6, he wrote, "I serious – you need contact me. Is no joke."
On April 7, the day she was hospitalized for surgery, he texted her, "Take the situation serious and contact me by Friday. That's all the time you have."
On April 11, Kulla e-mailed her: "Immigration has all your information now. It does not mean that they will come today but one day they will come and you will be send back to your country deported. Take this serious and call me if you do not want that this happens to you. Think serious as I am not lying to you but it is the truth. You have my number call,"
On April 13, Kulla made good on his promise. According to federal court records, he contacted ICE deportation officer Ronald Dorman and told him that in the course of his work with CIS, he had encountered a woman who had an outstanding deportation order. Kulla turned the woman in to ICE.
On April 17, Kulla e-mailed her: "i gave you chance ... now its too late enjoy your trip to your country."
ICE stepped in to apprehend Kulla, who, by posing as an ICE officer, could embarrass or undermine the agency.
"A rogue person like Bedri is a bad thing for them [ICE]," says Rosenbluth. "Bedri wasn't enforcing immigration laws, he was trying to exploit his position in order to have sexual relations with vulnerable women."
Barbara Gonzalez, Southern Regional Communications Director for ICE, would not comment on the case, but she did say the agency takes these cases "very seriously."
"It is unfortunate that there are people out there that are willing to pose as a federal official. We are committed to educating the community; we don't want them to fear calling the authorities. We're working to reach those victims who are out there."
ICE Senior Special Agent Elizabeth Fernandez received the criminal complaint against Kulla that the woman had filed with Chapel Hill Police and subsequently interviewed her. She identified Kulla in a photographic lineup, and at Fernandez' direction, responded to Kulla's April 17 message indicating she had been ill and hospitalized. She asked him what he wanted her to do to withdraw the deportation threats. Kulla insisted they meet face-to-face to talk.
On May 28, ICE agents arranged an undercover meeting at a Raleigh coffeeshop. They had wired her with a recording device. Agents also photographed Kulla entering and leaving the meeting.
According to court documents, the recording captured the following exchange:
The woman: "Why you, you send a message tell me you send immigration to my work?"
Kulla: "Because I think you're playing games with me."
Kulla sent her more messages throughout June, and on July 15, ICE agents arrested him. The affidavit alleges that Kulla "threatened and blackmailed an alien with deportation if she would not engage in a relationship with him, including spending the night at his apartment, and followed through on the threat by attempting to cause a deportation officer to take action against the alien."
This was not the first time Kulla had acted inappropriately toward an immigrant woman. According to court records, while working at CIS in 2008, Kulla was administratively disciplined because "while performing his official duties, he provided his cellular telephone number ... on a sticky note to a female foreign national who was involved in immigration proceedings."
CIS Public Information Officer Ana Santiago declined to comment, citing the pending sentencing.
Police issued a restraining order on Kulla, prohibiting him from contacting or seeing the woman. However, Kulla's attorney, Patrick Roberts, reportedly sent men who identified themselves as private detectives to her apartment complex to ask her neighbors about her character. Roberts canceled two scheduled interviews with the Indy. Through his secretary, he told the Indy he did not want to impact the outcome of the case by speaking about it before the sentencing hearing.
"They went to the main office at the apartment complex and said they were police from the government," says the woman, who was terrified to leave her apartment.
The private detectives spent the day in her apartment complex, and she says she watched them wait in the parking lot for her to leave. She says she was afraid they would try to kill her if she left or went to her car. "I thought that they were mad because Bedri was in jail, and since he couldn't get me he sent them," she says. "There are people you can pay to kill someone."
She called Rosenbluth. Within two hours, Rosenbluth says he reached Anand Ramaswamy, the federal prosecuting attorney, who informed Roberts to stop the investigators immediately. The N.C. Bar code prohibits lawyers from contacting an individual who is represented by an attorney without the attorney present. According to an e-mail obtained by the Indy, a U.S. Department of Justice official told Roberts to direct any inquiries about the woman to Rosenbluth. Rosenbluth says Roberts apologized to him.
Little can be gleaned about Kulla through public records, except that he is originally from Canada, born to Albanian parents. He has lived in upstate New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina—in Raleigh and then Morrisville. (Kulla could not be reached for comment for this story.)
Kulla has long been interested in Latinas. In 2002, a man listing himself as Bedri Kulla claimed to run a company called TIR International and stated he was looking for Latinas who wanted to be singers or entertainers. He asked prospects to send a photo and an e-mail. In 2004, Kulla posted on www.love-is-in-the-air.com, a dating site for people in the airline industry, that he was interested in Latinas and described himself as "sincere, warm-hearted, kind, trustful, helpful, a communicator, loyal and honest and have family values."
Kulla continues to post his profile and picture on social networking sites, including iHispano.com, and included an update as recently as June.
And on June 25, when the DREAM Team was holding its hunger strike in Raleigh, Kulla e-mailed the team with the subject line: "Volunteer" and posed the question, "What type of volunteer security you looking for and what type of support?"
Dominic Powell, a team volunteer, read the e-mail. He says the message made him suspicious. "We received lots of e-mails from students, friends of friends, wanting to know how they could help, but most of the time they were very general pledges of support. Bedri asked very specifically about security, which was odd."
The campsite needed 24-hour security, but this was a task team volunteers reserved for themselves and trusted friends. Powell did an online search for Kulla's full name and found the case history posted on the Southern Coalition for Social Justice website. He called Rosenbluth, who advised team volunteers not to reply to the e-mail; instead Rosenbluth called Kulla's attorney.
"His attorney said he would get him to back off," says Rosenbluth, who says he also called the federal prosecutor and ICE to notify them that Kulla was actively contacting Latinas. "It does show that he has a very unhealthy obsession with Latina women."
Today, as a crime victim, the woman has applied for a U visa, which would give her temporary legal status and work eligibility for four years.
"If he thought I was the type of person to be intimidated by him, then he was very wrong about me. Even if nobody was going to believe me, I wasn't going to let him manipulate me that way."
Her advice for immigrants is simple. "Don't let anyone intimidate you, and even if you cannot read or write, there are people who can help you, and you have that right—even people without papers."