MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - An indictment unsealed late Tuesday in Minnesota charges 17 members of an international crime ring with transporting hundreds of women and girls from Thailand and trafficking them throughout the United States as sex slaves.
The defendants include 12 Thai nationals and 5 Americans, including 2 men from St. Paul and Lakeville, Minnesota. Eleven of the 17 defendants were arrested Tuesday at various locations in Minnesota, California, Illinois, Georgia and Hawaii. One charged defendant was previously arrested in Belgium. Four defendants remain at large.
According to the indictment, since at least 2009, the crime ring has trafficked hundreds of women -- which they refer to as "flowers" -- from Bangkok, Thailand, to cities across the United States, including Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, and Austin, Texas.
Sex slaves with ‘bondage debt’
Once in the United States, the women and girls are placed in houses of prostitution where they are forced to work long hours -- often all day, every day -- having sex with strangers. The victims are not allowed to leave the prostitution houses unless accompanied by a member of the organization.
According to the indictment, the victims are recruited from poverty, speak little English and are promised a better life in the United States. The women are held as sex slaves with a "bondage debt" of between $40,000 and $60,000. The organization would market the girls on websites like backpage.com, which is frequently linked to prostitution.
Breast implants added to debt
The crime ring allegedly encouraged victims to have breast implants in Thailand to make them "more appealing" to potential sex buyers in the United States. The cost of the cosmetic surgery was added to the victims' bondage debt.
Threats to family
According to the indictment, the organization gathered personal family information from the victims to produce fraudulent visas, but that same information was later used to threaten victims who became non-compliant or tried to flee after arriving in the United States.
According to the indictment, Sumalee Intarathong (aka Joy), 55, served as a boss/trafficker before her arrest in Belgium on Aug. 5. Each trafficked victim was "owned" by Intarathong or another boss until the victim could repay the bondage debt. The trafficker arranged for victims to travel from Thailand to the United States and placed the victims in a house of prostitution somewhere in the United States.
Chabaprai Boonluea, 42, Winder, Georgia
Watcharin Luamseejun, 46, remains at large
Pantilla Rodpholka, 31, Mount Prospect, Illinois
“House bosses" owned one or more of the houses where the women were trafficked. House bosses were advertising, scheduling and money transfers. They made sure a significant portion of the money earned by the victims was routed back to the boss to pay down the bondage debt. The victim was not allowed to keep any money, except for the occasional tip.
Money laundering ‘facilitators’
Noppawan Lerslurchachai, 35, Lomita, California
Khanong Intharathong, 44, Dunwoody, Georgia
Andrew Flanigan, 51, Winder, Georgia
Patcharaporn Saengkham, 41 Los Angeles
Supapon Sonprasit, 31, St. Paul, Minnesota
According to the indictment, other members of the criminal organization served as "facilitators,” primarily responsible for laundering money and directing the movement of victims within the United States.
Thi Vu, 48, Atlanta
Todd Vassey, 54, Lahanina, Hawaii
John Zbracki, 59, Lakeville, Minnesota
Others served as "runners" – typically men who were paid, in part, by sex with the victims. Runners accompanied the victims anytime they were permitted to leave a house, and sometimes rented hotel rooms or apartments.
The charges against the defendants vary, but include:
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
Conspiracy to commit visa fraud