Local Mayor Pursues Exiled Deathmonger 

Toto Constant allegedly masterminded widespread rape, torture, and murder. The US government wouldn't pursue him, so Lafayette's Ivor Sampson did.

The name of Emmanuel "Toto" Constant is almost a curse among the people of Haiti. After the coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, Constant organized a right-wing paramilitary death squad that allegedly beat, raped, murdered, and terrorized thousands. Members of his death squad rampaged through the slums of Cité Soleil. Constant claimed to have harnessed the power of voodoo; among his arsenal of clubs, machetes, and rifles was a magic powder allegedly made from the ground-up bones of AIDS victims. When the American military reinstated Aristide in 1994, Constant fled the country and established himself in Queens, New York, where he worked as a real-estate agent. Although the government of Haiti convicted him in absentia of crimes related to a massacre in 1994, our own government refused to deport him. To the fury of thousands of Haitian Americans, who stared at him as he walked the streets a free man, Constant never had to answer for his crimes.

Then he ran afoul of the mayor of Lafayette.

Ivor Samson is a lousy soccer coach, a resident of Lafayette for 35 years, and a partner in the law firm of Sonnenschein, Nath and Rosenthal, where he "represents one company against another." In January 2005, he was approached by associates from the Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco organization that specializes in filing civil lawsuits against people who have committed human-rights violations. Would Sonnenschein, center staff asked, be interested in helping them sue Toto Constant? After reviewing the facts, Samson agreed. "This is one of the few opportunities one gets to really represent people that have really been injured and hurt, and on the other side, you've got somebody who's done some really terrible things," he says. "It's a real opportunity to wear the white hat."

The Center for Justice and Accountability was working with two plaintiffs, both of whom are Haitian women in their forties. The first claims that in 1992, members of the Haitian army kidnapped and murdered her husband, an Aristide supporter. The woman, who filed the lawsuit anonymously, publicly claimed that soldiers had committed the crime, despite repeated warnings to keep her mouth shut. "She was vehement, adamant, 'You murdered my husband,'" Samson says. "She was told to shut up, and she wouldn't shut up. And then these horrible things happened to her." On two occasions, she claims, members of Constant's paramilitary group gang-raped her in front of her children; after the second rape, she was stabbed in the neck and left for dead. The second plaintiff also claims to have been beaten, tortured, and raped.

Samson took up the lawsuit, suing Constant under the terms of the federal Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act. All they could do was secure a monetary judgment against Constant, but that will be more retribution than he is otherwise likely to experience. "This guy's got blood on his hands," Samson says, "and here he has taken refuge and is leading a normal middle-class life with no retribution and accountability for the things he has done."

Toto Constant is the son of Gerard Emmanuel Constant, the army chief of staff for "Papa Doc" Duvalier, one of the Western hemisphere's most notorious dictators. In late 1991, as Raoul Cédras forced Aristide into exile, the elder Constant died, and his son inherited his estate and ambition. In 1993, Constant organized the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH, the nation's bloodiest paramilitary organization during the coup years. A United Nations civilian mission accused Constant's group of embarking upon a massive killing spree; masked men patrolled the countryside at night, looking for Aristide supporters. Haitians would wake up and find corpses in the streets, their faces peeled off to prevent their spirits from finding rest in the afterlife.

The American intervention put an end to the FRAPH, as well as Constant's political future. He snuck into the Dominican Republic and made his way to the United States, where he remains. In 1995, the Immigration and Naturalization Service seized Constant and held him in custody while officials prepared to deport him back to Haiti, where he would undoubtedly face trial. But that December, Constant appeared on 60 Minutes and threatened to reveal the details of a secret relationship between the FRAPH and the Central Intelligence Agency. A few months later, the US government set him free, and he has been living on the fringes of Queens' Haitian community ever since. In July, New York police arrested Constant — not on charges related to his bloody past, but as part of a probe into a mortgage fraud scheme.

In 2003, a man named Carl Dorelien made headlines by winning the Florida state lottery. Haitian Americans remembered Dorelien as a former member of the Haitian military. The Center for Justice and Accountability quickly sued him for his involvement in a massacre in the community of Raboteau in 1994, and won a piece of his lottery earnings on behalf of several victims. But throughout the course of the lawsuit, center attorney Moira Feeney says, Haitian Americans kept reminding their lawyers that the real criminal was still at large. "Not one person in the Haitian community refrained from saying, 'What about Toto Constant?'" she says.

Lawyers with the center quickly began working on a case against Constant, and filed the first paperwork in December 2004, just days before the statute of limitations was set to run out. In January 2005, they met with Samson, while a process server ambushed Constant outside an immigration office. Constant never responded to the lawsuit, so Samson went to work organizing expert witnesses and preparing his case. On August 17, federal Judge Sidney Stein entered a judgment against Constant, holding him liable for rape, torture, and crimes against humanity.

This week, Samson's two plaintiffs will testify about the rapes they endured at the hands of Constant's men, as Stein determines the amount of damages they will receive. They don't expect to see much money, Samson says, but that's not the point. "The single biggest thing is for these women to have their day in court, and to have a United States judge say, 'What happened to you was wrong; the things this man did to you were beyond the pale of human conduct,'" he says.

According to Pierre Labossiere, a longtime Haitian-American East Bay resident, news of the ruling swept through the local Haitian community. "People were excited, jubilant about it," he says. "It shows that eventually, justice will triumph."

Toto Constant oversaw a regime of torture and murder that bathed Haiti in blood. His victims number in the thousands, and no one in the federal government ever held him responsible. That task fell to a corporate lawyer from the East Bay suburbs. "The Republican mayor of Lafayette, and myself, a longtime human-rights activist, you would never think we would pair up," Feeney says. "But we've made a great partnership here."


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