Federal prosecutors signaled Monday that more charges are likely against a Boston pizza shop owner accused of forcing seven undocumented immigrants to work for him for low wages, alleging he committed fraud related to a $500,000 federal pandemic relief loan he received for a business he had already sold and unemployment benefits he collected while vacationing in Aruba.
A search of Stavros Papantoniadis’s iCloud account also revealed several sexually explicit videos, which prosecutors allege depicted pain being inflicted on women and in one case a boy, according to testimony Monday in US District Court in Boston.
“They are consistent with his interest in the humiliation and sadistic violence targeting victims,” said Assistant US Attorney Brian Fogerty, arguing during a three-hour hearing that Papantoniadis, owner of Stash’s Pizza in Dorchester and Roslindale, should remain jailed without bail while awaiting trial on the forced labor charge.
“Any release order unnecessarily puts the victims of this long-running forced labor operation at great danger,” Fogerty argued.
But Papantoniadis’s lawyer, Carmine Lepore, argued that the allegations against his client are extremely old and were fabricated by alleged victims who have an incentive to lie because federal authorities have let them remain in the country because of the criminal investigation. He described Papantoniadis as “a family man” and urged the judge to release him on bail, with conditions that included an order to stay away from his pizza shops.
As for the videos, Lepore said it’s unclear where they came from or whether people portrayed in them were actors, and to claim they suggested Papantoniadis was “some kind of sadistic individual is absolutely ridiculous.”
US Magistrate Judge Judith Dein has yet to rule on whether Papantoniadis will be released on bail, saying she was taking the matter under advisement. Several dozen relatives and friends of Papantoniadis attended Monday’s hearing, prompting court officials to move the hearing to a larger courtroom.
Papantoniadis, who owns Stash Pizza in Dorchester and Roslindale and formerly owned pizza parlors in several other communities, was arrested by federal investigators last week on a charge of forced labor. He is accused of hiring undocumented immigrants from North Africa, Central America, and Brazil, and using violence and threatening to report them to immigration authorities if they refused to work long hours without proper compensation.
In court papers, federal authorities alleged that seven immigrants were victimized over a period of 15 years. Papantoniadis is accused of physically abusing them, sexually assaulting one worker, and warning them that police would side with him because he gave them discounts, authorities alleged.
Testifying Monday, John Heaton, a Homeland Security Investigations agent, said one victim told authorities that Papantoniadis followed him from work after they got into an argument over his request for a day off in 2018, then called Norwood police and falsely claimed that the worker had struck his car and fled.
Prosecutors played an audio of the 911 call, in which Papantoniadis was heard saying “somebody” had bumped the rear of his car and left the scene. Papantoniadis was asked to come to the station to file a report.
Later, according to Heaton, Papantoniadis told police that the other motorist was one of his employees, and that man was cited for the accident, even though the employee denied it happened and had no damage to his car.
The agent also testified that Papantoniadis was given a $499,000 pandemic-related loan from the Small Business Administration in January 2022, based on his application that it was for Boston Pizza shop in Randolph. But state records showed he sold the shop months earlier, according to the agent.
Heaton also testified that Papantoniadis and his wife were vacationing in Aruba in February 2021 when they collected pandemic unemployment benefits from the state, based on claims that they were available to work in Massachusetts at the time.
The defense called one witness during Monday’s hearing, Jerry Skordas, who manages Stash’s Pizza in Dorchester. He testified that he has worked for Papantoniadis since 2008 and was unaware of any claims that he had threatened or physically assaulted anyone.
Skordas said he has strived to emulate Papantoniadis “for his positive business transactions” and “everybody has a lot of respect” for him.
Skordas described the pizza shops as a family business. Papantoniadis’s mother works at the Dorchester location, and his daughter and son work at the Roslindale shop.
But in an affidavit filed in court, an agent alleged that Papantoniadis “could and did operate the Stash’s Pizzerias with fewer and cheaper workers over whom he exercised significant control, all of which reduced his businesses’ labor and operating costs.”
One of those alleged victims, a man from North Africa, told authorities he worked as many as 119 hours each week, according to the affidavit. 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, authorities allege.
Papantoniadis also allegedly installed cameras inside his restaurant on Blue Hill Avenue and on Belgrade Avenue in Roslindale and used them to monitor his workers, often ordering them from afar not to take breaks, authorities allege.
On Monday, Fogerty argued that Papantoniadis “targeted victims who were vulnerable and he picked them for that reason.”
Fogerty argued that Papantoniadis “has engaged in fraud” by allegedly lying to obtain a $500,000 loan for a business that he sold, and that he and his wife allegedly lied to obtain unemployment benefits.
At the same time, Fogerty said Papantoniadis was making a significant amount of money and reported huge gambling losses at Encore Boston Harbor, including approximately $45,000 in 2019; $60,000 in 2020, and $87,000 in the first nine months of 2021.
But Lepore portrayed Papantoniadis as a victim of disgruntled workers who fabricated allegations against him so they could stay in the country.
“The very age of these allegations should tell this court that they should not support detention,” said Lepore, noting that most of the claims involved incidents that are alleged to have happened five to 15 years ago.