SEATTLE — Federal officials Monday announced the indictment of six defendants for their alleged role in a multi-state prostitution ring that recruited women from Asia to serve as sex workers and then required them to pay off as much as $60,000 in smuggling debts.
The undercover probe by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Kirkland and Bellevue police departments and the King County Sheriff's Office, identified a prostitution ring that advertised illegal alien Asian women for "massage services" on Backpage.com. The ring provided prostitution services at leased apartments in Bellevue and Kirkland; Chicago; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Fairfax County, Va.
"This investigation revealed a criminal enterprise that spans at least four states and affects multiple residential neighborhoods," said Brad Bench, special agent in charge of HSI Seattle. "Only through multi-agency cooperative investigations can law enforcement be most effective at attacking and dismantling organizations that prey on the vulnerable and often bring other criminal activity into our area."
According to court documents, law enforcement began investigating reports of apparent prostitution activity at a Kirkland apartment complex. Investigators learned the six defendants were operating the prostitution business together and that many of the women they employed as sex workers had overstayed their visas. In return for their employment, the women owed debts of as much as $60,000 to the leader of the prostitution ring. Most of the women were recruited in Thailand and came to the U.S. knowing they would be required to work in the sex trade to pay off their debts. The conspirators used multiple cell phones to place the Backpage.com ads, and one of the conspirators worked as the "operator," arranging appointments for the women.
The defendants, named below, are charged with conspiring to transport individuals for prostitution; conspiring to use a communications facility to promote prostitution; and conspiring to engage in money laundering:
- Unruean Aboulafia, 34, of Bellevue, is the alleged leader of the scheme. A Thai national in the U.S. illegally, she allegedly recruited the women from Thailand and advertised their services on backpage.com. The women paid her their smuggling debts;
- Thanyathorn Mohr, 35, of Bellevue, is a Thai national who allegedly responded to calls generated by the Backpage.com ads, scheduled appointments and directed clients to the apartments;
- Jeff Chu, 48, a U.S. citizen living in Bellevue, allegedly leased various apartments for the group, in both his name and his ex-wife's name. He collected some of the proceeds for the conspiracy and laundered the money through various bank accounts;
- Xinping Zhang, 39, is a Chinese national legally in the U.S. and Chu's ex-wife. She allegedly rented various apartments, collected money and laundered funds;
- Edward Flanigan, 57, a U.S. citizen from Federal Way, allegedly rented apartments for the prostitution activities in Washington and Arizona; and
- Steven Aboulafia, 59, a U.S. Citizen from Henderson, Nev., and the ex-husband of the ringleader, allegedly leased apartments in Washington, Virginia and Illinois, and collected prostitution proceeds.
"These defendants exploited vulnerable women immigrants to enrich themselves," said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. "We will work with our partners to stop this exploitation. I commend the member of our community who alerted law enforcement. I also applaud the good work of the King County Sheriff's Office, and the Bellevue and Kirkland Police Departments for their work with ICE's Homeland Security Investigations on this case."
The charges contained in the indictment are only allegations. A person is presumed innocent unless and until he or she is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Conspiracy to transport individuals for prostitution and conspiracy to use a communications facility to promote prostitution are each punishable by up to five years in prison, and conspiracy to engage in money laundering is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
In addition to HSI Seattle, HSI Chicago and HSI Washington D.C. contributed to the investigation. The case is being prosecuted the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington.