comScore

Alleged Minnesota rape victim featured in PBS documentary

Immigrant janitorial workers face possible deportation if they report abuse.

Immigrant janitorial workers face possible deportation if they report abuse.

Leticia Zuniga was employed cleaning Ridgedale Center the first time she was raped. Her boss, Marco Gonzalez, was her alleged assailant, abusing her several times in his basement office. Zuniga, an undocumented immigrant, was allegedly not his first victim.

Risking deportation, Zuniga waged an uphill legal fight against Gonzalez and their employer, Service Management Systems, the company hired to clean the Minnetonka mall. Two years after City Pages reported her story, Zuniga and other sexual abuse victims in the janitorial industry are the subject of a new “Frontline” documentary, which airs 9 p.m. Tuesday on PBS.

“Rape on the Night Shift” is a collaboration between “Frontline,” Univision, the University of California-Berkeley and others aimed at exposing the vulnerability of immigrant women who clean banks, malls and offices after hours. Through interviews with victims, attorneys and an industry watchdog group, “Frontline” tries to shed light on this under-the-radar issue.

The new report is an extension of past award-winning documentary, “Rape in the Fields,” which investigated sexual abuse of immigrant women working in American farms, fields and factories. According to “Rape in the Fields,” a survey of female California farmhands found 40 percent had been exposed to sexual harassment or rape on the job.

Such abuse claims are often underreported, as victims risk losing their jobs or deportation. The attackers often use immigration status as leverage to keep their victims quiet.

After the first time Zuniga was assaulted, Gonzalez threatened to her report the Mexican woman to immigration if she talked. Fearful of being separated from her two children, who were born in Minneapolis, and needing to put food on the table, Zuniga kept quiet.

"I just kept thinking of my kids," she told City Pages. "They were born here; they wanted to stay here. I kept thinking that I had to tell someone, but that if I did, they would not believe me. I felt very alone, so alone that I started to talk to myself. I felt that I couldn't do anything."

Following a fourth assault in 2007 that landed her in the emergency room, Zuniga informed her husband of the abuse. He angrily confronted Gonzalez in his office, but it wasn't until a few months later that Zuniga met an advocate who reported the abuse to Ridgedale Center.

Since SMS is a large, independent subcontractor, Ridgedale directed the claims to the Tennessee-based company. Despite her advocate's warnings, the case was eventually referred to SMS' only Minnesota manager – Gonzalez.

In the spring of 2008, Zuniga reported the incidents to the Minnetonka Police Department, and the Hennepin County Attorney got involved. But a lack of evidence, compounded by the length of time between the assaults and reporting date, closed the door on criminal prosecution.

A civil lawsuit resulted in a settlement, in which SMS – cleaner of 300-plus malls across the country – made company-wide policy changes, including posting a hotline number for employees to report abuse and ending its practice of forbidding workers from reporting complaints directly to mall management.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 98 percent of rapists never spend a day in jail.

Send news tips to Michael Rietmulder.