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Wednesday, October 05, 2016
International Sex-Trafficking Bust Reaches into Hawaii
By News Release @ 3:31 PM :: 2948 Views :: Law Enforcement

Seventeen Individuals Indicted for Respective Roles in Human Trafficking Scheme that Exploited Hundreds of Thai Women for Commercial Sex in the United States

Sex Trafficking Organization Engaged in Visa Fraud and Debt Scheme to Recruit Victims into the United States for Prostitution

News Release from US DoJ, October 5, 2016

An indictment unsealed late yesterday in St. Paul, Minnesota, charges 17 members of an international sex trafficking organization with transporting hundreds of women from Thailand and profiting from advertising them for commercial sex throughout the United States.

The charged defendants include 12 Thai nationals and five U.S. nationals.  Eight of the 17 charged defendants were arrested yesterday at various locations in Minnesota, California, Illinois, Georgia and Hawaii.  One charged defendant was previously arrested in Belgium and four defendants remains at large.

The announcement was made by Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch; U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger of the District of Minnesota; Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division; Special Agent in Charge Alex Khu of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) St. Paul Division and Special Agent in Charge Shea Jones of the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) St. Paul Field Office.

“Human trafficking is a degrading crime that undermines our nation’s most basic promises of liberty and security," said Attorney General Lynch.  “This case demonstrates the Justice Department’s determination to hold traffickers accountable and to help the survivors of this appalling practice reclaim their freedom and dignity.  As part of our nationally recognized Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team Initiative, the District of Minnesota is playing a crucial role in those vital efforts, and I want to commend all of the team members whose cooperation led to today’s action.”

“The 17 people charged in this indictment ran a highly sophisticated sex trafficking scheme,” said U.S. Attorney Luger.  “They promised women in Thailand a chance at the American dream, but instead exploited them, coerced them and forced them to live a nightmare.  In short, the victims lived like modern day sex slaves.  Today’s indictment is our ninth sex trafficking case since 2014, but it is the first that targets an entire organization.  We will continue to work closely with our federal and local law enforcement partners to target and dismantle these types of far-reaching organizations.”

“The Justice Department created the Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team (ACTeam) Initiative to bring together federal law enforcement agencies to enhance our impact in investigating and prosecuting human trafficking,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gupta.  “This case is an outstanding example of these efforts.  We will continue to work tirelessly with them to bring traffickers to justice and vindicate the rights of vulnerable victims.”

“This week’s arrests reflect HSI’s global reach and ongoing efforts to dismantle criminal organizations that engage in human trafficking activities,” said Special Agent in Charge Khu.  “HSI also remains firmly committed to rescuing victims and getting them help they desperately need to begin recovering from the depredations forced on them by these criminals.”

“From coast to coast, IRS Criminal Investigation is determined to team with our law enforcement partners to track down the individuals who facilitate and launder the proceeds of sex trafficking crimes,” said Special Agent in Charge Jones.  “Those who seek to enrich themselves by exploiting the desperate circumstances of their victims will not be tolerated in our cities.”

According to the indictment, which was returned under seal on Sept. 28, 2016, since at least 2009, the criminal organization has recruited and transported hundreds of women, which the organization refers to as “flowers,” from Thailand to various locations across the United States, including Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas and Austin, for purposes of exploiting them for prostitution.  Once in the United States, victims were allegedly placed in houses of prostitution where they were forced to work long hours – often all day, every day.  As alleged in the indictment, the women were not allowed to leave the prostitution houses unless accompanied by a member of the criminal organization.

According to allegations in the indictment, which identifies several of the women as victims of human trafficking, the organization often recruited women from impoverished backgrounds who spoke little English.  Recruiters exploited these vulnerabilities during the recruitment process, promising the victims access to a better life in the United States in exchange for a debt of between $40,000 and $60,000, which the women were required to pay off through prostitution earnings.  As alleged in the indictment, before transporting the women to the United States, the organization would typically arrange to have the women photographed for purposes of advertising them for sex on websites like backpage.com and eros.com.  The organization also encouraged the women to have breast implants in Thailand to make them “more appealing” to potential sex buyers in the United States and added the cost to the victims’ debt.

The organization engaged in widespread visa fraud to facilitate the international transportation of the women into their commercial sex enterprise, the indictment alleges.  Members of the criminal organization assisted in obtaining fraudulent visas and travel documents for the women, and members of the conspiracy used personal information on the women and their families, which they gathered in the course of obtaining the fraudulent documents, to threaten victims who became non-compliant or tried to flee.

The defendants include:

  • Sumalee Intarathong, 55, who was a boss in the scheme is currently incarcerated in Liege, Belgium, is charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; sex trafficking by use of force, fraud and coercion; conspiracy to commit forced labor; conspiracy to commit transportation to engage in prostitution; transportation to engage in prostitution; conspiracy to engage in money laundering; conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution and conspiracy to commit visa fraud.
  • Chabaprai Boonluea, 42, of Winder, Georgia, was a house boss in the operation and is charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; sex trafficking by use of force, fraud and coercion; conspiracy to commit forced labor; conspiracy to commit transportation to engage in prostitution; transportation to engage in prostitution; conspiracy to engage in money laundering and conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution.
  • Watcharin Luamseejun, 46, was a house boss in the scheme and is charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; conspiracy to commit forced labor; conspiracy to commit transportation to engage in prostitution; conspiracy to engage in money laundering and conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution.
  • Pantilla Rodpholka, 31, of Mount Prospect, Illinois, was a house boss in the operation and is charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; conspiracy to commit forced labor; conspiracy to commit transportation to engage in prostitution; conspiracy to engage in money laundering and conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution.
  • Noppawan Lerslurchachai, 35, of Lomita, California, was a facilitator in the scheme and is charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; sex trafficking by use of force, fraud and coercion; conspiracy to commit forced labor; conspiracy to commit transportation to engage in prostitution; transportation to engage in prostitution; conspiracy to engage in money laundering and conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution.
  • Khanong Intharathong, 44, of Dunwoody, Georgia, was a facilitator in the operation and is charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; conspiracy to commit transportation to engage in prostitution; transportation to engage in prostitution; conspiracy to engage in money laundering and conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution.
  • Andrew Flanigan, 51, of Winder, was a facilitator in the operation and is charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; conspiracy to commit transportation to engage in prostitution; conspiracy to engage in money laundering and conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution.
  • Patcharaporn Saengkham, 41, of Los Angeles, was a facilitator in the scheme and is charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud.
  • Yadaporn Panngoen, 30, Los Angeles, was a facilitator in the scheme and is charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud.
  • Supapon Sonprasit, 31, of St. Paul, was a facilitator in the operation and is charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud.
  • Thi Vu, 48, of Atlanta, was a runner in the operation and is charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; conspiracy to commit transportation to engage in prostitution; conspiracy to engage in money laundering and conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution.
  • Todd Vassey, 54, of Lahaina, Hawaii, was a runner in the scheme and is charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; conspiracy to commit transportation to engage in prostitution; transportation to engage in prostitution; conspiracy to engage in money laundering and conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution.
  • John Zbracki, 59, of Lakeville, Minnesota, was a runner in the operation and is charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; conspiracy to commit transportation to engage in prostitution; transportation to engage in prostitution; conspiracy to engage in money laundering and conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution.

According to the indictment, Intarathong served as a boss before her arrest in Belgium earlier this year.  As alleged in the indictment, each woman identified as a victim of human trafficking was “owned” by Intarathong or another boss until the victim could repay the debt.

According to the indictment, other members of the criminal organization served as “house bosses,” who owned one or more of the houses of prostitution where the “flowers” were exploited for commercial sex.  House bosses were responsible for day-to-day operations, including advertising the “flowers” for commercial sex, maintaining the houses of prostitution, scheduling appointments with sex buyers and ensuring that a significant portion of the prostitution proceeds were routed back to the trafficker/boss to pay down the debt.  The house boss kept the remainder of the prostitution proceeds, while the women were not permitted to retain any of their earnings, except for the occasional tip offered by a sex buyer.

As set forth in the indictment, other members of the criminal organization served as “facilitators,” who were primarily responsible for laundering the criminal proceeds of the organization and for directing the movement of victims within the United States, while other co-conspirators served as “runners.”  The runners were typically men who were paid, in part, by receiving access to sex acts with the women.  Runners accompanied the women anytime they were permitted to leave a house of prostitution to obtain personal items, travel as directed by the criminal organization or deposit money into accounts set up by the organization for repayment of the women’s debts.  Runners were also sometimes asked to rent hotel rooms, apartments or other facilities for the organization.

The charges contained in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

The District of Minnesota is one of six districts designated through a competitive, nationwide selection process as a Phase II ACTeam, through the interagency ACTeam Initiative of the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Labor.  ACTeams focus on developing high-impact human trafficking investigations and prosecutions involving forced labor, international sex trafficking and sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion through interagency collaboration among federal prosecutors and federal investigative agencies.

This case is the result of an investigation conducted by HSI; IRS-CI; Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service; St. Paul Police Department; Anoka County, Minnesota, Sheriff’s Office; and Cook County, Minnesota, Sheriff’s Office, with the support of the International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Melinda Williams and Laura Provinzino of the District of Minnesota are prosecuting the case with the assistance of the Civil Rights Division’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit.

---30---

LINK: USA v Vassey

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