North Carolina husband and wife smuggled women into U.S. for forced labor, feds say

Mitchell Willetts
·2 min read

A Fayetteville husband and wife are accused of helping smuggle four Honduran women and their four children across the border, and into a Willard, North Carolina home where they were forced to work, according to newly unsealed court documents.

Martha Zelaya-Mejia, 37, and 42-year-old David Darnell Whitehead, are facing 42 counts for their alleged human smuggling, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Mejia and Whitehead worked with a network of criminals in Honduras, Mexico and along the border to bring the women in, according to the Attorney’s Office. Other smugglers brought the group of women across the border, and once in the U.S., Mejia and Whitehead took them from there — all the way to the Willard home, in October 2018.

At the home, which was owned by an associate of the couple, the women and children were at times physically restrained, abused, threatened, authorities said. They were made to live in fear and work to profit their captors.

Then, after nearly a year, in August 2019, a call came in to the Pender County Sheriff’s Office. One of the women pleaded for help, telling the operator about the home she had been taken to, that she wasn’t allowed to leave, and that the owner shocks her with a Taser.

If Mejia and Whitehead are convicted of conspiracy and forced labor, they could get 20 years in prison per count, according to a statement from the Attorney’s Office. Each count of smuggling, transporting and concealing aliens carries up to 10 years.

The duo is also facing charges of money laundering, which is 20 years in federal prison.

“The arrests will bring an end to the reign of terror that these two predators inflicted on their victims,” Special Agent in Charge Ronnie Martinez said.

Martinez oversees operations by Homeland Security Investigation in North Carolina.

“Human smuggling is akin to modern day slavery and the perpetrators of this evil do tremendous physical and mental damage to their victims,” he said. “Having these two off the street is a small step in making this country safer.”