From the outside, Stash’s Pizza shop seemed ordinary, its brick facade and red awning a familiar but nondescript sight on the edge of Franklin Park in Dorchester.
But inside, owner Stavros Papantoniadis was exploiting his employees in a harrowing campaign of abuse and intimidation that lasted years, federal prosecutors said Thursday. He hired undocumented immigrants and made them work brutally long hours, sometimes threatening those who complained with alerting immigration authorities.
One immigrant from North Africa told authorities he worked as many as 119 hours each week, prosecutors allege. Papantoniadis allegedly assaulted the man several times, once kicking him in the groin with such force he had to have surgery. In other attacks, Papantoniadis broke the man’s upper and lower teeth, they said.
Even when Papantoniadis, 47, wasn’t at the Blue Hill Avenue shop or a second one in Roslindale, he was watching workers from afar through cameras installed inside the stores and would warn workers not to take breaks, prosecutors said.
Authorities arrested Papantoniadis, a Westwood resident, on a forced labor charge. At US District Court in Boston Thursday, he did not enter a plea and was ordered held without bail until his next hearing on Monday. A lawyer who represented Papantoniadis, who is known as Steve, declined to comment.
Audrey Richardson, a lawyer with Greater Boston Legal Services, said the allegations of physical abuse detailed in the affidavit are “an extreme example” of the exploitation and abuse undocumented workers are subjected to by their employers.
A second attorney, Pablo Carrasco with Justice at Work in Boston, added, “Generally, these jobs are a lifeline for these individuals and their families, and unscrupulous employers who know their status will take advantage of that.” He encouraged workers who find themselves in a similar situation to contact a local worker center where they can receive support and help to understand their rights.
In one notable case in 2011, Upper Crust, a gourmet pizza chain with several Massachusetts locations, was the subject of a US Department of Labor investigation after a Boston Globe story detailed widespread abuse of undocumented immigrant workers recruited from Brazil. The chain was ordered to pay $850,000 in back wages, the Globe reported, and several locations eventually closed. The company has since changed owners and now operates six locations in Massachusetts and three in California, according to its website.
According to a federal affidavit for Stash’s Pizza, investigators launched a criminal probe after Papantoniadis settled a civil suit for overtime wage violations in 2019.
“Whenever an undocumented employee indicated that he or she wanted to quit, Papantoniadis would make references to the employee’s immigration status, threaten to have him or her deported, and withhold his or her remaining wages,” the affidavit said.
The affidavit listed seven unnamed victims, who relayed accounts of exploitation and abuse, including derogatory comments about their religion or immigration status and physical attacks that sometimes caused significant injuries.
The worker who emigrated from North Africa in 1999 worked for Papantoniadis between 2001 and 2015 and reported putting in as many as 119 hours each week, mainly at the Dorchester location.
Papantoniadis would deride the man as an “[expletive] Muslim,” but the man felt he had to continue working for him because “he was an undocumented immigrant and he believed that Papantoniadis would report him to the police or immigration authorities if he did not continue to work,” the affidavit said.
The man told investigators he was assaulted several times. He alleged that Papantoniadis kicked him in the genitals in 2007. When he took a bus to Massachusetts General Hospital for treatment, Papantoniadis called him and allegedly threatened to kill him if he didn’t return, according to the affidavit. The man had surgery on his genital region and had a catheter put in, investigators said.
During a three-week recovery, “Papantoniadis would call Victim 1 and threaten to kill him and call immigration if he did not return to work,” investigators said.
On other occasions, Papantoniadis slapped the man in the face and broke his glasses, choked him, struck his ear and mouth, and broke his upper and lower teeth, the man alleged.
“Victim 1 had to go to the dentist and have all of his teeth removed,” the affidavit said. “Victim 1 now has dentures.”
Another man, from Brazil, identified in court papers as Victim 6, told authorities Papantoniadis called him an antigay slur when he learned he was friends with a gay co-worker, and also touched him inappropriately.
The man repeatedly told Papantoniadis to stop the unwanted touching, and Papantoniadis became angry when he learned the man planned to quit, the affidavit said. He allegedly threw papers in his face, threatened to alert immigration authorities, and told him, “If you quit, I know your address.”
In court on Thursday, Papantoniadis wore a black T-shirt and jeans and only spoke when asked if he understood the charges against him.
“Generally, yes,” he said.
Prosecutors said he faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted, as well as a maximum fine of $250,000, and five years of supervised release.
“The allegations in this case are horrific,” US Attorney Rachael S. Rollins said in a statement. “Nobody has the right to violently kick, slap, punch, or choke anyone, and certainly not an employer to an employee. This case illustrates the manipulative, violent and abusive tactics some employers utilize for their own greed and financial gain.”
Papantoniadis had previously owned several other pizza shops. At one of those locations, prosecutors said, Papantoniadis attacked a worker who had planned to quit, forcing him to run. When another worker did the same, Papantoniadis allegedly made a false police report, stating the victim had hit his car and left the scene of the accident after leaving the shop in Norwood. As a result, the worker was pulled over and cited by police.
In 2019, Papantoniadis and Polyxeny Papantoniadis agreed to pay $330,000 in back wages and other damages to 150 current and former employees over violations of the minimum wage, overtime, and recordkeeping provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, the US Department of Labor said.
During the period covering the criminal probe, the affidavit said, Papantoniadis owned and operated the Stash’s spot in Dorchester, Stash’s Pizza in Roslindale, Boston Pizza Company in Randolph, Boston Pizza Company in Norwell, Stash’s Pizza in Norwood, Pacini’s Italian Eatery in Weymouth, and Stash’s Pizza in Wareham.
According to the affidavit, five of the locations have since closed or been sold.
Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nick Stoico can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickStoico.