A human trafficking ring that forced at least 25 Chinese women into prostitution in motels across Southern California, where they earned millions of dollars for their alleged captors, was busted this month and five people were arrested, the Ventura County Sheriff's Office said Tuesday.
Authorities said they launched a six-month investigation into the network after deputies discovered a potential victim of human trafficking during a prostitution sting at the Comfort Inn in Camarillo. Authorities uncovered evidence at the motel of a larger group operating across the region, Undersheriff Gary Pentis said at a news conference in Thousand Oaks.
"Commercial sex is nothing short of modern-day slavery," Pentis said, adding that such operations are pervasive. "This is a hideous crime that has an impact on all of us."
The illicit operation was run much like a corporation, officials said, and the victims took in about $350,000 a month for the organizers.
The alleged ringleader, identified as Hsin Chieh "Jerry" Wang, worked as the network's dispatcher and took calls from hundreds of men each month who answered sexually explicit ads on backpage.com, Pentis said.
Another suspect, Defeng Hu, negotiated with the men and directed them to motel rooms occupied by the victims, Pentis said. The transactions ranged from $100 to $160, and proceeds were laundered through as many as 50 accounts at nine banks, Pentis said.
Officials said Wang and Hu ran the network, and Wang's sister, Yiwen Wang, used $1.8 million of the illicit money to buy three houses.
The Wangs and Hu were arrested Aug. 4 in Los Angeles County, along with Jiuyin Cui and Runan Xia, who allegedly transported the women between the motels in nine counties and maintained the rooms, where the victims were provided with the "bare necessities," officials said, including food, water and toiletries.
Hu jumped from a three-story building and broke her leg when authorities showed up to make the arrests, Pentis said. She was carrying ledgers, cellphones and $350,000 in cash, he said.
There were 28 victims in nine counties, all identified as Chinese women in their 30s and 40s who were in the country on what appeared to be legitimate work and tourist visas, authorities said. Some relinquished their visas under pressure from the traffickers, authorities said.
Most spoke little or no English and were placed in motels in areas unfamiliar to them, Pentis said. They rarely came out of their rooms and were expected to engage in sex acts from early in the morning until late at night every day under orders from Hu, Pentis said.
Some were physically abused and robbed by customers, officials said. The women incurred debt because they were forced to pay the drivers, Cui and Xia, for transportation between motels, for their motel rooms and food, and in some cases, the advertisements touting their services, authorities said. They also were repeatedly subjected to verbal abuse by Hu, officials aid.
The five suspects were arraigned Aug. 5 in Ventura County, where bail was set at $5 million each. They face sentences ranging from 24 years to just under four years, Ventura County Deputy District Attorney Melissa Suttner said.
Eight victims originally discovered by authorities received food, shelter, transportation, clothing and medical services from victim services advocates and law enforcement agencies.
Pentis said the women remain fearful and have not been very cooperative, but he believes they will come around and provide information.
In addition to the cash, investigators froze bank accounts containing about $730,000, as well as a $30,000 car and the three houses.