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Human Smuggling/Trafficking
10/05/2016

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ICE investigation results in 17 sex trafficking indictments in Minnesota

A sophisticated, widespread organization was dismantled; 12 are in custody
Human Trafficking

ST. PAUL, Minn. — A federal indictment unsealed late Tuesday charges 17 members of an international sex trafficking organization with transporting hundreds of female sex slaves from Thailand and trafficking them throughout the United States.

This indictment resulted from an investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with assistance from the following agencies:  Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations (IRS-CI), Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, St. Paul (Minnesota) Police Department, Cook County (Illinois) Sheriff’s Office, Anoka County (Minnesota) Sheriff’s Office.  This investigation was also supported by the International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center (IOC-2), and numerous other state and local law enforcement agencies across the country.

The charged defendants include 12 from Thailand and five U.S. citizens. Eleven 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.

The indictment and arrests were made by the following agency heads:  U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch; U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger, 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 HSI St. Paul; and Special Agent in Charge Shea Jones of the 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.”

“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 Alex Khu, of HSI St. Paul. “HSI also remains firmly committed to rescuing victims and getting them the help they desperately need to begin recovering from the depredations forced upon them by these criminals.”

“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.”

“As this operation clearly shows, human trafficking — in this case the trafficking of vulnerable Thai women for sex — knows no boundaries,” said Sgt. Sean Johnson, an investigator with the Saint Paul Police Department’s Human Trafficking Unit. “We’re proud to be part of a community in which agencies work together to send a clear message to anyone who would traffic or purchase women for sex: Your actions will not be tolerated here, and we will hold you accountable for your actions.”

“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 Shea Jones, special agent in charge of the St. Paul Field Office. “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, since at least 2009, the criminal organization has trafficked at least hundreds of women, which the organization refers to as “flowers,” from Bangkok, Thailand, to various cities across the United States, including Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, and Austin, among others. Once in the United States, victims 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 criminal organization.  

The indictment further indicates that victims are often from impoverished backgrounds and speak little English. Recruiters exploit these vulnerabilities during the recruitment process. Victims are promised access to a better life in the United States, in exchange for an exorbitant “bondage debt” of between $40,000 and $60,000. Before being transported to the United States, the organization typically arranged to have professional-quality escort-style photographs taken of the victims, which were ultimately sent to traffickers in the United States and used to advertise the victims for sex on websites like backpage.com and eros.com. The organization also encouraged victims to have breast implants in Thailand to make the victims “more appealing” to potential sex buyers in the United States. The cost of the cosmetic surgery was added to the victims’ bondage debt.

Also in the indictment, the organization engaged in widespread visa fraud to facilitate the international transportation of the victims. Members of the criminal organization assisted the victims in obtaining fraudulent visas and travel documents. As a part of obtaining visa documents, members of the criminal conspiracy gathered personal information from the victims, including the location of the victims’ families in Thailand. This information was later used to threaten victims who became non-compliant or tried to flee the organization in the United States.

The indictment alleges that Sumalee Intarathong, aka “Joy,” served as a boss/trafficker before her arrest in Belgium Aug. 5. Each trafficked victim was “owned” by Intarathong or another boss/trafficker, 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.

According to the indictment, other members of the criminal organization served as “house bosses,” who owned one or more of the houses of prostitution to which the flowers were trafficked. House bosses were responsible for day-to-day operations of the houses of prostitution they controlled, which included advertising the “flowers” for commercial sex, maintaining the houses of prostitution, scheduling sex buyers, and ensuring that a significant portion of the money earned by the victims was routed back to the trafficker/boss to pay down the bondage debt. The house boss kept the remainder of the money earned by the victim. The victim was not allowed to keep any money, except for the occasional tip offered by a sex buyer.

According to the indictment, other members of the criminal organization serve as “facilitators.” These individuals were primarily responsible for laundering the criminal proceeds of the organization and for directing the movement of victims within the United States.

According to the indictment, others among the co-conspirators served as “runners.” The runners were typically men who were paid, in part, in sex with the victims. Runners accompanied the victims anytime they were permitted to leave a house of prostitution. Victims were allowed to obtain personal items, to travel at the direction of the criminal organization, or to deposit money into bank accounts set-up by the organization for the victims to repay their bondage debt. Runners were also sometimes asked to rent hotel rooms, apartments or other facilities for the organization.

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

Defendant Information: (at-large defendants are not listed)

Alleged Boss/Trafficker — Sumalee Intarathong, 55, of Liege, Belgium (Incarcerated)

Alleged House Bosses —

  • Chabaprai Boonluea, 42, Winder, Georgia
  • Watcharin Luamseejun, 46, city unknown
  • Pantilla Rodpholka, 31, Mount Prospect, Illinois

Alleged Facilitators —

  • Noppawan Lerslurchachai, 35, Lomita, California
  • Khanong Intharathong, 44, Dunwoody, Georgia
  • Andrew Flanigan, 51, Winder, Georgia
  • Patcharaporn Saengkham, 41, Los Angeles, California
  • Supapon Sonprasit, 31 St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Thi Vu, 48, Atlanta, Georgia
  • Todd Vassey, Lahaina, 54, Hawaii
  • John Zbracki, 59, Lakeville, Minnesota

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Last Reviewed/Updated: 10/11/2016