GREENSBORO — Former federal immigration assistant Bedri Kulla, 50, will serve a year in prison for threatening to deport an illegal immigrant if she didn't sleep with him.
Both Kulla and Xiomara Blanca, 24, a Salvadoran who lives in Chapel Hill, testified in court Friday.
The young woman broke into tears when she talked about how Kulla repeatedly threatened her over four months after they met on a social networking page maintained by Spanish language television network Univision.
"I didn't feel at ease either in my work or in my home," she said through an interpreter. "I was afraid. I think it's something I'm not going to forget."
Blanca first met Kulla face to face on a Sunday in January 2009 at Panera Bread Co. near The Streets at Southpoint in Durham. Blanca said Kulla asked personal questions and showed her his ID card from his job at Citizenship and Immigration Services in Durham.
Blanca said she didn't want to see Kulla again after that meeting, but he showed up at her job two days later with a bouquet of flowers and a computer printout showing the date of her deportation order from San Antonio in 2005.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anand Ramaswamy asked Blanca to read the note that came with the flowers. "I am so happy you are in my life," it said.
E-mails soon followed, asking why Blanca wasn't responding to Kulla. "If you don't want [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] coming to your work, you need to contact me," one said.
Under cross-examination by Ramaswamy, Kulla said he simply wanted to find out why Blanca didn't return his e-mails because he'd never had a woman spurn him like that. Ramaswamy asked how he came to be divorced four times, and Kulla said those were mutual partings.
U.S. District Judge N. Carlton Tilley gave Kulla the maximum punishment for the civil rights violation with blackmail as an aggravating factor. Kulla's attorney, Patrick Roberts, argued that his client's threats didn't constitute blackmail because there was no monetary gain at stake. Roberts urged the judge to impose probation rather than a prison term. But Tilley disagreed.
"That is something of value, asking someone for a relationship," Tilley said. "It's not hard to see that she is a most attractive young lady. Mr. Kulla, like me, is not the most attractive male. ... He'd asked her to stay at his house. Mr. Kulla was seeking something that he was not entitled to have.
"He had flowers in one hand and a deportation order in the other when he first came to her work," Tilley said. "The message has to be, 'You can't misuse your position, especially to threaten somebody like this young woman, who is in a vulnerable position.'"
Blanca was ordered deported in 2005 but never left the United States. She awaits approval of a four-year "U" visa, available to crime victims, according to her attorney, Marty Rosenbluth.
After Kulla's sentencing, Blanca said she'd hoped he'd go to prison for more than a year.
"Even if he goes to prison, that's still not going to make me feel calm again," she said through an interpreter.
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