Minnesota prosecutors charge four in 'Uber of sex trafficking'

Criminal charges were announced Wednesday in an international human trafficking and prostitution enterprise that prosecutors called “the Uber of sex trafficking.” The crime ring involved numerous victims and thousands of ads placed on Backpage.com in 29 different states over the past two years.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said the crime ring used phones to coordinate meeting locations with johns and the victims. He said "dozens" of phones were used to set up the "dates" with victims, and sometimes the men responding to the ads would overlap with each other.

"It was the Uber of sex trafficking,” Orput said. “You could order up sex...Ordering a girl was like ordering up a pizza.”

According to the criminal complaint, the investigation uncovered an operation out of Irvine, California, which trafficked women from China to areas across the country for prostitution.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said the sex trafficking victims were brutally raped and beaten, and forced to work 12 to 14 hours each day with a quota of $800 per day. In Minnesota, investigators documented multiple places of operation, including St. Paul, Blaine, Cottage Grove, Maplewood, Oakdale and St. Louis Park. Operations were also discovered in Fargo, North Dakota.

According to the charges, which document the experiences of six victims, the women had to pay their traffickers house fees, transportation costs, hotel expenses, as well as provide their own food, and some were forced to relinquish their passports. 

"This is the most sophisticated human trafficking operation I have ever seen," Choi said.

The four suspects -- Fangyao Wu, Sophia Wang Navas, Hong Jing and Dongzhou Jiang -- are charged with racketeering, sex trafficking, promotion of prostitution, concealing criminal Proceeds and engaging in the business of concealing criminal proceeds in connection with a criminal enterprise profiteering off the sale of vulnerable human beings for sex.

One suspect was taken into custody in Washington County, Minnesota on Tuesday and three others were arrested in California. Those suspects will be extradited to Minnesota to face charges.

Orput said the sex trafficking ring appears to still be in operation despite the apprehension and charges against four of the major players.

“If you are a customer of these women, stop,” Orput said. “This is not a victimless crime. In this particular case, these females were working from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. They would have sex with sometimes dozens of men per day. Sometimes men would pay, sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes the women would be beaten, robbed, or raped. They had minimums established by traffickers. This was their daily life. So to those men, stop – it is a crime, and most important, it’s wrong.”

Prosecutors in Minnesota have been fighting prostitution connected to Backpage ads for years. The website’s adult services section was removed in January, but Orput said the ads haven’t been shut down – they’ve just moved to another section of the Backpage classifieds.