By COREY KILGANNON, The New York Times
July 11, 2006
Like many of his neighbors, Emmanuel Constant left behind tumult in his homeland, Haiti, and found a more stable life in New York City.
The change was good. He became a real estate agent and lived in a spacious white house in Queens.
But Mr. Constant kept his nickname � Toto � a name that continues to stir fear and hatred among many Haitians, who know him as the man who in the early 1990�s ran a paramilitary group that human-rights groups say raped, tortured or killed thousands to silence loyalists of the deposed president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
For many Haitians here, Mr. Constant�s unapologetic attitude and his success in America simply added to the horrors he was accused of.
�Toto has blood dripping from his hands, and he has been living his cocky lifestyle in the middle of New York�s biggest Haitian community,� said Ray Laforest, 59, a Haitian immigrant living in Flatbush.
�For us, this just reinforces the deeply painful and unjust history of Haiti.�
Mr. Laforest and many other Haitians were surprised last week when Mr. Constant finally was arrested, not on charges relating to his past, but in connection with a mortgage fraud scheme on Long Island.
He was arraigned on Friday in State Supreme Court in Riverhead on charges including grand larceny. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer�s office said that Mr. Constant, 49, and five others defrauded banks out of more than $1 million in loans by using straw home buyers and inflated appraisals.
The attorney general�s office said Mr. Constant played a role in recruiting one of the straw buyers and in forging a bank statement that the bank relied on in giving a loan. The prosecutors said Mr. Constant was paid $45,000.
A lawyer for Mr. Constant, Edward R. Palermo of Smithtown, said Mr. Constant was pleading not guilty to the financial charges, but added that he knew little of his client�s past in Haiti, or his immigration status.
�They want to make my client�s political past in Haiti the background of the case, for publicity and to prejudice the judge to set a high bail, when it really has nothing to do with these charges,� he said.
In a memorandum to the judge, Mr. Spitzer�s office called Mr. Constant a flight risk, and because of his association with �a violent paramilitary organization,� urged that he be held without bail, or that bail be at least $2 million.
Acting State Supreme Court Justice Michael F. Mullen set it at $50,000. But even if Mr. Constant posts bail, he is to be turned over to federal immigration officials, who have orders to detain him, said Chief Alan Otto of the Suffolk County Sheriff�s Office. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau would not give any details about Mr. Constant�s status.
He fled Haiti when Mr. Aristide returned to power in 1994. Immigration officials here detained him but ultimately decided not to deport him after Mr. Constant insisted that Haiti�s unstable justice system would put him to death.
In 2000, Mr. Constant was convicted in absentia by a Haitian court for his involvement in a 1994 massacre, and he was sued recently in federal court on behalf of three women who said his soldiers beat and gang-raped them, under a �systematic campaign of violence against women.�
It has always been a sore point with New York�s Haitian immigrants that Mr. Constant has been allowed to live in exile here, said Kim Ives, a journalist who has written extensively about Mr. Constant in the New York Haitian press.
�If people weren�t so afraid of him, he would be attacked the minute he walked on the street here,� he said.
But, Mr. Laforest said, �Mentally, Haitians are still terrified of Toto; they�re afraid his friends will have their house firebombed.�
Mr. Constant remained on the margins of the Haitian community and would rarely walk in Haitian neighborhoods, both his friends and his enemies say.
But his distinctive face and 6-foot-4-inch frame made him easy to pick out. He was seen with friends at nightclubs and would appear alone at voodoo ceremonies. People would stare and whisper about Toto and the mass killings and rapes in Haiti committed by his band of guerrillas, a group known as Fraph and translated variously as the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti.
There was the woman at a train station, Mr. Laforest said, who nearly fainted after recognizing him from his newspaper photograph. There was a time Mr. Constant approached a Haitian man who was selling a house, who told Mr. Constant he looked familiar. Upon learning his name, he stood agape, and Mr. Constant quickly left.
For the past 10 years, Mr. Laforest has organized occasional demonstrations in front of Mr. Constant�s home in Laurelton, Queens, at his offices, and at the location in Manhattan where Mr. Constant checked in weekly with immigration authorities.
�People were afraid that he was still a killer, but there were times I had to literally hold people back from rushing into his office and attacking him,� Mr. Laforest said.
In the last couple of years, as the protests intensified, Mr. Constant, his companion and their young child began moving between Queens, Flatbush, New Jersey and Long Island, said Fritz Cherubin, a friend of Mr. Constant who runs a business providing notary, fax and other clerical services to immigrants.
Yet many Haitians would not dare physically or even verbally attack Mr. Constant because of his dangerous reputation in Haiti and his continued connections with the old backers of his violent paramilitary organization, others said.
Giroboam Raphael, who owns a record store on Flatbush Avenue, said, �So many Haitians were afraid to do anything to Toto because he seemed untouchable.
�Toto always claimed he was working for the U.S. government in Haiti, so we all thought he was out of reach of the law,� Mr. Raphael said. �It�s strange that, with all the horrific things he did in Haiti, they arrested him for mortgage fraud.�
Olisha Baptiste, 38, of Ditmas Park, said he saw Mr. Constant at voodoo ceremonies in Brooklyn, which consisted of drumming, prayer and consultation with spirits.
�It was always uncomfortable for me and the others that, �My God, it is Toto Constant sitting here,� � Mr. Baptiste said. �This is one guy nobody wanted to be associated with, but no one ever said anything. We welcome everyone, and also we were afraid of his background. We all know what he is capable of doing. He is untouchable.�
�Maybe those ceremonies were a place he could venture into quietly, just slip in and out without a fuss,� he added.
But he never shrank from his past, insisting he was a hero and boasting of working as a C.I.A. informer and having powerful protectors, Mr. Laforest and others said.
�He liked to talk to the press a lot and make himself look powerful, but he never killed anybody,� said Mr. Cherubin, his friend. �He�s been running from people the past couple of years, but he�s not a bad man.�