The Saudi princess and her family had crossed the globe in May with a passel of servants and settled into one of the labyrinthine luxury communities that dot Orange County.
In the earth-toned towers of Irvine’s Central Park West, where valets park the BMWs of Saudis and Qataris, a wealthy clan with an entourage spread over four condo units did not seem out of place.
Then, early Tuesday, one of the servants darted past the gates and flagged down a bus. The Kenyan woman clutched a suitcase and an unlikely pamphlet. The paper had been given to her at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia, where she had secured a travel visa, and warned of the dangers of human trafficking.
Within hours, the woman was telling Irvine police a dark story of modern-day slavery, and detectives descended upon Central Park West.
On Thursday, the princess appeared in an Orange County courtroom, charged with one felony count of human trafficking. Prosecutors said Meshael Alayban, 42, “did unlawfully deprive and violate the personal liberty” of the Kenyan woman by forcing her to cook, clean, do laundry and perform other household chores for meager pay.
In court Thursday, she was clad in blue prison garb and had pulled her dark wavy hair into a low ponytail. Judge Gregg Prickett signed off on a protective order that would bar her from contacting the Kenyan woman or people close to her. She also surrendered her passports. Thursday afternoon, she posted $5 million bail and was freed.
Authorities are investigating whether four other servants working for the princess’s family were also victimized.
The case was met with shock and outrage in Irvine, a city famous as melting pot of many cultures. But experts and law enforcement officials said that in Saudi Arabia, the servant’s working arrangement is fairly commonplace.
“The people who are hired, as such, think they’re getting a benefit from it.... They’re getting a roof over their head. They’re getting fed,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in Los Angeles and Southern Nevada. “On the face of it, they think they’re getting treated well. So they don’t think of themselves as victims.”
Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, said servants are treated so poorly for so long “that they become completely docile. The Saudi employer cannot imagine them as anyone who has free will, so they comfortably view them as part of the baggage and bring them to the U.S. or Europe.”
Sometimes, however, servants take these trips as a chance to escape.
“There have been warnings from the Saudi government to wealthy people not to bring their domestic servants when they travel to the U.S. or Europe, for precisely this reason,” Abou El Fadl said.
Alayban’s attorney , Paul S. Meyer, downplayed the entire incident as a dispute between the princess and her servant over hours worked and wages paid. There was no physical abuse in the household and the woman was not physically restrained, he said.
“We ... expect that the truth will resolve this matter,” he said in a written statement.
In March 2012, Alayban -- one of the six wives of Saudi Prince Abdulrahman bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz al Saud -- hired the servant via a Kenyan employment agency, authorities said. The woman, 30, said she needed money to provide medical care for her 7-year-old daughter, who remains in Kenya.
Her contract said she would work five days a week for eight hours a day and make $1,600 a month. After three months, she could return home if she was unhappy, authorities said.
But once she arrived in Saudi Arabia, authorities said, the princess tore up the contract, confiscated the woman’s passport and refused to return it. The woman said she was forced to toil seven days a week for 16 hours a day and made $220 a month.
She was part of a vast domestic workforce. Antoinette Vlieger, a law professor at the University of Amsterdam who has written extensively about the lives of domestic employees in Saudi Arabia, said the country employees more than 1 million maids from developing countries.
Most of them are very poor, she said, and their well-being is tied to the whims of their employers. If the employer abuses them, they have nowhere to turn.
“Even if they get raped and they go to the police and report that, there have been cases where the police simply raped them again and then they were deported,” Vlieger said.
Earlier this year, the princess and her family decided to visit the United States. At the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia, the Kenyan woman was given a temporary visa and the red, white and blue pamphlet, which reminded temporary workers that they had the right to “report abuse without retaliation” and “seek justice in U.S. courts.”
When the group made the trip to Irvine in May, the Kenyan woman briefly got her passport back. But she was always accompanied by a family member, authorities said, and in Irvine the princess again took her passport away.
“I understand it looks like this princess was operating entirely above the law,” Vlieger said. “But she’s not used to such laws being in place.”
The Kenyan woman continued her work in the four condo units, authorities said, where the prince, their three young children and four other servants from the Philippines also lived. The servants’ passports had been locked in a bank safe deposit box, said Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who recently announced he was forming a special unit to deal with human trafficking.
The complex, just off the 405 Freeway and Jamboree Road, is an mix of gray stucco town homes and luxury towers, some still under construction, with an ethnically diverse population. It’s unclear why the woman chose Tuesday morning to slip away.
“She is a smart woman,” said Steve Baric, her attorney. “I think she saw her opportunity to go to freedom and she took it.”
Once the woman hopped on the bus, about half a mile from the condo complex, a fellow passenger noticed she was upset, Irvine Police Lt. Julia Engen said. After the woman, who speaks English, shared her story, the passenger brought the woman to her workplace to call police.
Later that day, authorities searched Alayban’s condo units and found the other servants. “The detective spoke to them and said, ‘Do you want to leave with us?’ ” Engen said. “And they said yes.”
Alayban was arrested later that day.
An Arabic translator was on hand to explain the proceedings to Alayban, who spoke only to respond to questions from the judge.
“Yes, Your Honor,” the princess repeatedly said.
Times staff writers Jill Cowan and Richard Winton contributed to this report.