Charges: Sex traffickers took hundreds from Thailand to US

Posted at 2:33 PM, May 25, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-25 17:33:18-04

Hundreds of women were brought from Thailand to the U.S. and forced to be "modern day sex slaves," according to an indictment that charges 21 people in what authorities called a sophisticated sex-trafficking ring that used an elaborate money laundering scheme to conceal millions of dollars in earnings.

The indictment, unsealed Thursday, builds upon a case announced in October in which 17 people were indicted for their roles in the operation, which lured Thai women to the U.S. with promises of a better life, then forced them to work as prostitutes until they could pay off often insurmountable bondage debts.

The latest indictment goes after the money. It charges 21 people with various counts, including conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, sex trafficking by use of force or threats, conspiracy to engage in money laundering and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business.

The investigation unfolded after authorities with Homeland Security Investigations in Minneapolis began looking into a sex trafficking case in the Twin Cities in 2014 and discovered it was part of an international ring.

Former Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andy Luger had made sex trafficking a priority and traveled to Thailand as part of the investigation. Luger was among the U.S. attorneys forced to resign in March, but prosecutors in the office have continued working this case, approaching it as they would an organized crime network.

According to the indictment, the sex-trafficking ring started in 2009. Poor women who spoke little English were brought from Bangkok to several U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Washington, Houston and Dallas, the indictment alleges. Once in the U.S., the women were forced to have sex in various "houses of prostitution" including hotels, massage parlors and apartments.

"The victims were isolated. They typically did not have the ability to choose who they have sex with, what sex transactions they would engage in, or when they would have sex," the indictment said. The organization threatened to harm the women's families in Thailand if they escaped.

The women were often encouraged to get breast implants, and the cost of the surgery was added to their debt. They were forced to turn over most of the money they earned, as well as pay for rent, food and personal items, making it almost impossible to repay their debt.

Those charged include house bosses in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Austin, Texas. They allegedly ran day-to-day operations, including advertising, scheduling sex buyers, and ensuring that a portion of cash made by victims was routed back to traffickers to pay down bondage debts.

The women were also forced to open bank accounts in the U.S. that the organization controlled and used to help launder money from the sex trafficking. The organization also recruited people to bring large sums of cash to Thailand or hid cash in items sent to Thailand, such as clothing or dolls. Cash was also sent to Thailand through international wire transfers and hawala-based systems, the indictment said.

At various times, the organization operated out of at least seven prostitution houses in the Minneapolis area, and more than a dozen victims were trafficked through Minnesota, the indictment said. The leaders of the ring based in Bangkok, Thailand -- who are identified in the indictment as Individual A and Individual B -- opened and operated the Minnesota prostitution houses.