The story was shocking when it broke: A Saudi princess living in luxury in Irvine suspected of keeping a Kenyan woman as a modern-day slave.
When Meshael Alayban, 42, was accused in July of forcing an employee to work long hours for little pay, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas cited the Emancipation Proclamation and said he was shocked to see such a case in California.
On Friday, he conceded "the evidence does not support the charges."
The district attorney asked an Orange County judge to toss out the felony count of human trafficking against Alayban, who had been free on $5-million bail but was tracked by a GPS monitor and not allowed to leave the county.
During a brief hearing, Orange County Superior Court Judge Gerald G. Johnston agreed to the request and gave Alayban her passport, which had been held by the court.
The princess smiled faintly and nodded. She left the court without comment.
Alayban's attorneys said Irvine police jumped the gun on the case and failed to do a thorough investigation. Attorney Jennifer L. Keller said it would have been easy to quickly disprove at least one of the allegations — that the Kenyan employee had only been allowed to leave Alayban's posh Irvine home on family outings in order to carry her employer's bags.
"If they had interviewed even one neighbor, the neighbor would have said, 'We've seen them coming and going all the time,'" Keller said.
The attorneys said they were convinced of their client's innocence from the start and sent 22 investigators to collect evidence in Kenya, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. They concluded the allegations were based on lies and were part of a scam by the employee to gain legal status in the U.S., Keller said.
"This has been a nightmare for this family," said Paul S. Meyer, another attorney representing the princess.
Steve Baric, an attorney who represents the employee, denied that his client contrived the allegations. The 30-year-old woman was disappointed by the decision not to pursue the case, Baric said.
Irvine Police Chief David Maggard declined, through a spokesman, to be interviewed.
In a written statement, Maggard said, "We investigated this case thoroughly and stand by the work of our detectives. We followed the law and adhered to our high ethical standards, as we always do. We support and respect the decision made by the district attorney to dismiss these charges."
When the case first emerged, Rackauckas touted it as an example of his office's efforts to crack down on modern-day slavery cases under an anti-trafficking law approved by voters last year. But as the investigation proceeded, they apparently realized the case was falling apart.
In fact, several key details in the case turned out to be inaccurate, including the original terms of the woman's employment and an allegation that she did not receive medical care, according to the D.A.'s office.
Rackauckas said he did not believe the employee had intentionally lied. Prosecutors are not looking to press charges against her, said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the district attorney.
"She didn't test the idea that she couldn't leave," Rackauckas said. "We had a lot of allegations and reason to believe they were true."
Police moved quickly to arrest Alayban because they feared she would leave the country, he said.
Keller and Meyer said they have surveillance video showing the employee coming and going freely from the Alayban home. They also have records showing she was provided with medical exams and follow-ups, all of which were paid for by the family.
"No one was overworked or held against her will," the defense attorneys said in a statement.
The household employees were given access to pools, parks, a spa and gym. They had drivers who took them shopping and for entertainment, they said.
Keller declined to say exactly how much the woman from Kenya was paid but said that her compensation, along with that of three employees from the Philippines, included free room and board in luxury accommodations, medical care, money for entertainment and paid vacations.
"They are very kind people," Keller said of the princess and her husband.
Alayban and her husband, Prince Abdulrahman bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who have three children — had five household workers and nurses and three drivers, the defense lawyers said.
At the high-end condominium complex where Alayban lives, a neighbor described her as "a good woman."
"I don't think she would ever keep someone against their will, that's just not her," said Mohammad Alsuwaidi, a 24-year-old student at Cal State San Bernardino.
The Kenyan employee was granted one-year temporary immigration status based on being an alleged victim of human trafficking, a spokesman for the Irvine Police Department said. Her attorney did not say whether she hopes to remain in the country.