Six blazered septuagenarians stood huddled ahead of security at the Tarrant County Federal Courthouse last Friday. “What you looking for, lady?” one asked. I had to take my shoes off anyway, so I summoned him over to a swivel chair and asked where the trial was, as if there was only one. “I know which one you’re talking about,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “The human trafficking? It starts at 1:30.” It was 8:15.
“Thanks,” I said. “It’s not on the docket.”
“It’s on the docket all right, missy. You just didn’t see it.”
At 1 p.m., Denise Cros-Toure and Mohamed Toure walked into the courtroom. Denise, a tiny, polished mother of five, sat down with her attorneys at a long rectangular table.
Mohamed sat at the table behind her. He turned around and mouthed hello to two packed benches of high school-aged girls holding hands in the gallery. They were probably there for Rima, the Toures’ youngest daughter. She’s the only one of their five children still living at home.
If you believe the government, the Toures are evil. Denise and Mohamed, both 57, are charged with harboring an alien for financial gain, conspiracy to commit forced labor and conspiracy to harbor an alien for financial gain. In other words, they’ve treated her as a slave. That’s how all the headlines have referred to this matter, the Southlake slave case. Mohamed, the son of the first-ever president of the Republic of Guinea, faces additional charges of making false statements. When the couple was arrested at their home in Southlake in May, Mohamed told an agent (perhaps by accident) that they either had tried or were trying to adopt the alien in question. If they are convicted, they could go to federal prison for 20 years.
The alien’s name is Djena Diallo, her first name pronounced Jenna. Federal court documents say Djena traveled by herself from Conakry, Guinea, to Dallas in January 2000 when she was (the government says) about 5 years old. For the next 16 years, the story goes, Denise and Mohamed used her for free labor, forcing the young girl to cook, clean, and take care of their five children. It’s also alleged that Djena suffered physical and emotional abuse.
The defense’s ringleader is a cherub-faced attorney named Scott Palmer. He’s diminutive in stature and seems even-keeled for a criminal defense attorney. To help tip these scales, there’s David Finn, an 11th-hour addition to the Toures’ defense. Finn is like if Alka-Seltzer was a person. He’s both stubborn and passionate, a combination that sometimes gets him thrown out of the courtroom. More on that later. There’s also the impossibly tall Brady Wyatt, whose name suggests his parents knew he would grow up to become a trial attorney in Dallas. Rounding out the defense is Rebekah Perlstein, a former assistant district attorney for Collin County, and James P. Roberts. His eye contact is like a magnifying glass. You are the ant burning in the sun.
The prosecution consists of Washington, D.C.-based Department of Justice attorneys Rebekah Bailey and William Nolan, and three silent people behind them.
The judge’s name is Reed O’Connor. You might recognize it. In December, he made headlines for declaring Obamacare unconstitutional.
Here’s what I saw in the courtroom over the last week.
Hassane Dianne, a family friend of the Toures’, was the first to testify on Monday. He told Prosecutor Nolan he thinks Djena was 17 when he met her in 2005 or 2006. Nolan asked him what his reaction was when she left.
He said, “I was very shocked.” He described Djena as “the owner of that house.” Later, under cross-examination, Finn asked Dianne what he meant by this. “She had a house key. She went to the bank to make deposits,” he said. “She was like Mrs. Toure’s daughter,” he said. “I would have noticed if anything was wrong.”
When it was Nolan’s turn again, he asked, “So, everything Denise did, Djena did, too?” Yes.
“Djena was with Denise at all times?” Yes.
Finn shot out of his chair. “He’s impeaching his own witness, your honor.” I later googled “impeaching the witness.”
Then the prosecution called Maladho Diallo, who is Djena’s mother. She’d just flown in from Guinea and spoke through a translator. When she found out Djena was moving to America, she said, she hid her at an aunt’s house for several days. “I didn’t want her to become somebody’s slave,” she said. (The defense questioned the accuracy of this translation.) Maladho said she does not remember when Djena was born. The translation thing was tricky. Judge O’Connor called a break and said amid the whispering, “I’ve never dealt with this before.”
The crowd laughed at something Maladho’s translator said. The judge lost it. “That was extremely inappropriate. Who laughed!?” When nobody confessed, Finn raised his hand even though he definitely had not laughed. The judge told him to leave the courtroom. Finn spent the next hour in time out.
Perlstein showed Maladho photos of Djena as a child with the other Toure children. “She doesn’t look good to me … She doesn’t look the way I wanted.”
Djena wasn’t called to testify until late Monday. It was getting dark. Fortunately I had the fluorescent overhead lighting to help me stay awake.
In Guinea, she lived in a rural village in a dirt hut with no indoor plumbing. She slept on the floor. She said she attended school and remembers helping take care of her two younger sisters, who she liked to play with and carry on her back. Sometime before 2000, her dad brought her to nearby Conakry, Guinea’s capital, to live with other relatives, including at least one of Denise Cros-Toure’s relatives.
In January 2000, she boarded a plane in Conakry and flew by herself to DFW Airport, where Mohamed Toure picked her up. He brought along Ahmed, the oldest Toure child.
When Djena arrived at the Toures’ house, she said, Denise showed her around the kitchen so that she could learn where things were.
Denise made her put a relaxer on her hair and later told Mohamed to shave it because she didn’t like how it looked.
“She used an electrical cord on me when she realized the belt wasn’t hurting enough,” she said. One time Mohamed sat on her and held her down so that Denise could hit her. During silences in the courtroom, Djena was expressionless.
Djena’s life in Southlake
She enjoyed watching television. Rima, Denise, and Djena often watched Survivor and The Amazing Race together. Djena said she watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians one time, but decided to stop. Perlstein asked her how she had time to watch TV since she had to work from sun up to sun down. Djena said it was usually night, while she was massaging Denise.
Most of the Toure children were involved in track and cross country at Carroll High School. Exhibit after exhibit showed Djena at their meets. She also was a distance runner and tracked her runs using the Nike+ app.
Perlstein asked Djena if Denise was also strict with the other Toure children. Yes, Djena said, but it was different with her. When the other kids misbehaved, they were punished, too, but Djena’s punishment was harsher. The other kids also had chores, but not as many as she did. She also was provided with clothes and a cellphone, but hers were substandard compared to everyone else’s.
In August 2016, Djena made contact with a former neighbor, Bridget Ajufo. Bridget moved to Houston in 2005 but at one time was a family friend of the Toures’. Bridget arranged for her daughter Christine to pick Djena up, explaining that she needed help getting out of a bad situation. Denise and Mohamed were out of town; only Djena and Rima were at home. Christine, who had met Djena a handful of times, had not seen her since 2005, when she and her mother moved away. Christine would eventually contact the NGO that spearheaded the government’s investigation. After she picked Djena up, they drove to Arnetta Shams’ house in Dallas and the next morning had brunch at Buzzbrews in Lakewood. Later, they went to see Bad Moms at Alamo Drafthouse. The next day Christine drove Djena to Bridget’s house in The Woodlands. She still lives with Bridget and has a job at Macy’s.
“You walked right out of the door, right?” Perlstein asked. Djena said yes.
Perlstein asked if it was fair to say she could have made the decision to leave at any time. “No, because I had no family,” Djena said. Mohamed shook his head and for the first time in Djena’s five hours of testifying, I saw his stoicism crack. Denise never flinched. Not once.
When asked what she wants to do going forward — and she will have decisions to make once the trial is over, since her immigrant status will no longer be protected by the government — Djena said she wasn’t sure. She doesn’t know if she wants to return to Guinea or stay in the United States. She wouldn’t say whether her life here is better than the one she had in Guinea.
When Perlstein passed the witness, Finn stepped up and grabbed the microphone as if he was about to sing karaoke. “Remember me? From the soccer team with Timou?”
Objections started flying.
“Remember the sidelines at the soccer games?” he said. “You were cheering for Timou.” (Timou is one of Denise and Mohamed’s sons.) Djena answered yes, although it was difficult to hear her over the cacophony.
“Remember how you were also helping other parents?” To reiterate, Finn is a loud man. “Remember the trips to San Diego?” Judge O’Connor shut him down.
Wow. Okay. So Finn and Djena know each other outside the courtroom. And Finn is a soccer dad.
He asked if her family had talked to her about money that might come her way if the Toures are convicted. No, she said, but she was told she would be able to file a civil suit later. “Did anyone talk to you about restitution?” he asked. She said yes. Her lawyer Rebekah Bailey had discussed it with her.
Finn ripped off his Notre Dame necklace.
“You were in a bind when you were trying to leave the Toures’, weren’t you? You didn’t want to go back to Africa. Then you find out that your dad was trying to sell you to some fat guy –”
Djena said no, that this was the first she’d heard of it. She looked confused. Judge O’Connor told Finn to cut it out with the fat guy business; it was not up for discussion. “Remember going to the Starbucks before the ‘S’ hit the fan? Your dad wanted to sell you to a fat guy –”
The judge apologized to the jury and asked them to step out. There was shouting. O’Connor asked Finn if he wanted to remain in the courtroom. “I’d love to,” Finn said. He got another chance to not talk about the fat guy.
If I were on this jury, I think the school thing would be hardest to wrap my head around. It seems like, in a place like Southlake, there must have been some way they could have enrolled Djena in school. But Carroll ISD’s registration flowchart is labyrinthine. Actually it’s probably standard, but I don’t have kids. There is a form for children who live with adults that are not relatives or legal guardians. In those cases the district needs notarized signatures from (and addresses for) the child’s birth parents, which wasn’t an option for the Toures. Also, how does a minor who doesn’t have a birth certificate, vaccination records or a social security number, and doesn’t know her last name, deal with this? Help me. I’m dense.
Human trafficking is abhorrent. So is emotional and physical abuse, but it’s hard to prove. I hope we can agree on these points. Since we’re good there, I’ll add that it’s hard for me to wrap my head around how the Toures could have pulled off such an elaborate, covert scheme for 16 years. In Southlake of all places. I grew up in Coppell, a town that’s similar to Southlake in that everyone is up in everyone else’s business. When my brother was 17, my parents went out of town and let him stay home by himself. My parents told the neighbors they were leaving but forgot to mention my brother wouldn’t be joining them. Someone noticed a light go on and called 911. Within 10 minutes the police were banging on the front door, their guns drawn.
The government has charged the Toures with harboring an alien for financial gain. Djena admitted in her testimony that she was able to come and go.
If Djena looked disheveled when Bridget saw her in 2016, after 11 years, does that mean Denise and Mohamed should go to federal prison?
The jury was to begin deliberating this morning. We’ll see.