Prosecutors Announce Largest Ever International Sex Trafficking Bust in the US
U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald reveals final 5 in sex trafficking case have been convicted
A federal jury has convicted 36 people for their roles in an international sex trafficking ring, making the case the largest of its kind in the United States, prosecutors have announced.
U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald revealed that the final five defendants were found guilty in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, Minnesota late last week.
The massive international human trafficking operation that was responsible for forcing hundreds of Thai women to engage in commercial sex acts across the United States.
Federal prosecutors say the organization used money laundering to conceal and sustain itself.
According to a statement from the Department of Justice, Michael Morris, 65, of Seal Beach, California; Pawinee Unpradit, 46, of Dallas, Texas; Saowapha Thinram, 44, of Hutto, Texas; Thoucharin Ruttanamongkongul, 35, of Chicago Illinois; and Waralee Wanless, 39, of The Colony, Texas, were convicted following a six-week trial before Senior Judge Donovan Frank in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Thirty-one defendants previously pleaded guilty for their roles in the sex trafficking ring.
According to MPR, the five defendants, from California, Texas, and Illinois, were convicted on a range of counts including conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, money laundering and sex trafficking by use of force, fraud, and coercion.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino said the case started with a tip to law enforcement about a possible trafficking victim who was flying to the Twin Cities from Phoenix.
"The case agent and I got that lead in early 2014. She went to the airport. She conducted surveillance," Provinzino said.
"She identified who that woman was. There was a runner in Minnesota who was helping the organization who picked her up."
The runner brought the victim to a Walmart to buy condoms and then to an apartment, where she was sold for sex.
Minnesota U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald said law enforcement soon realized that the woman who flew to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that day was one of hundreds of people that a large criminal enterprise coerced into coming to the United States from Thailand with the false promise of a better life.
"This organization was one of the largest and most sophisticated transnational sex trafficking organizations operating in the United States," MacDonald said.
"And it did so for more than a decade or so. It existed here in Minnesota and in cities across the country."
Traffickers used phony bank accounts, created fictitious biographies and set up fraudulent marriages to assist the victims in getting visas.
The women were forced to have sex with as many as 10 men a day, then told to pay back debts of $40,000 to 60,000, prosecutors said.
The case took two years to prosecute and involved agencies ranging from the St. Paul Police Department to the IRS.
It grew to include 36 defendants, 31 of whom pleaded guilty.
The others took their chance in court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams said prosecutors and law enforcement had to marshal vast resources.
"It's like a mafia case. It's all of the difficulties of the hardest human trafficking case you've ever done with a seemingly bottomless supply of victims," Williams said.
"And then it's all the hallmarks of the hardest fraud case and money laundering case and white-collar case that you've ever done."
Investigators have recovered $1.5 million in cash.
According to trial testimony, one money launderer alone sent $40 million to Thailand.
The Thai Community Development Center, based in Los Angeles, assists about 20 of the victims with immigration and legal issues, so they can try to establish a normal life.
The group's attorney Panida Rzonca says she wants to hear from others who were not called as witnesses in the case.
"This is a topic that's very difficult to talk about in the Thai community as well as the community at large," Rzonca said.
"Many people feel very ashamed. They don't want to come forward. But I would encourage Thai people who know of victims or are in contact with people back in Thailand to come forward because we can still help them."
Rzonca is helping some of the victims write impact statements.
Sentencing hearings for the 36 defendants are expected to begin early next year.