Four suspects were charged Wednesday in an expansive sex-trafficking ring that spanned 29 states and “brutalized” foreign women who were expected to earn $800 a day having sex with men.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said the “sophisticated” ring was operated out of Irvine, Calif., but that alleged criminal activity took place in North Dakota and Minnesota, primarily the east metro.
“The enormity of this criminal enterprise across the entirety of the United States is ample proof of the pervasive nature of sex and human trafficking here in Minnesota,” Orput said in a written statement. “Hopefully, this investigation and prosecution will cement in the mind’s eye of the general public the breadth of this problem which law enforcement has to confront.”
All four defendants were charged in Washington County with the same six offenses: racketeering, aiding and abetting sex trafficking and prostitution, conspiracy to traffick and aiding and abetting concealment of criminal proceeds.
Dongzhou Jiang, 28, of Blaine was the only Minnesotan charged in the case. Orput said Jiang acted as a “regional boss,” taking the women to different sites around the metro where they were forced to have sex with men, buying condoms and other supplies and coordinating logistics. Jiang’s interview with authorities appeared to be key to investigating the other suspects. He was initially charged last month with five felonies in connection with the case before the racketeering charges were filed.
Three Irvine residents were charged in the case: Hong Jing, 48; Sophia Wang Navas, 49; and Fangyao Wu, 23. Wu is Jing’s daughter. Authorities believe the three California women made up the “operational control center” of the ring.
All the suspects have been arrested. The California defendants were arrested Tuesday, and await extradition to Minnesota.
“It seemed to me that this was the Uber of sex-trafficking,” Orput said at a morning news conference announcing the charges. “… You can order up a human being. They target women who don’t speak English, who constantly move so they can’t develop ties.”
The criminal complaints filed in the case portray a cycle of abuse where vulnerable Chinese and Korean nationals were shuttled across the country and from house to house to avoid detection.
Authorities identified at least six victims between the ages of 32 and 49, but said there could be many more who have not been discovered. Orput said authorities have offered support services to a number of the victims and will continue to do so, but noted that many might be too fearful to accept help or speak up. The traffickers often threatened the women with deportation, he said, later adding that it’s unclear what “pipeline” led them into the United States.
Seven addresses in Minnesota were connected to the case, one each in Oakdale, Cottage Grove, St. Paul, Blaine and St. Louis Park. Two addresses were located in Maplewood.
One address in Fargo, N.D., three addresses in Irvine and one address in Chino Hills, Calif., were connected to the case.
Authorities noted that the investigation is ongoing, and that more suspects could also be identified.
Authorities were alerted to the ring when an informant told Minneapolis police about an apartment in St. Louis Park, Orput said. Police found two women there who were being trafficked, which led them to about 18,000 ads that had been placed on Backpage.com.
According to the complaints alleging criminal activity from February 2015 to February 2017: Jiang coordinated the trafficking in Minnesota and North Dakota under direction from Jiang and Navas, whom Jiang told authorities were the “boss ladies.”
Jiang purchased, rented and leased businesses, houses, apartments and hotels in the metro area between July 2016 to February 2017. Massage parlors were also utilized.
“Defendant Jiang described the brutality of the female victims’ experiences in commercial sex work with frequent assaults, rapes and robbery by customers,” the complaints said. “… As stated by Defendant Jing, getting beat[en] and raped is ‘just part of the business,’ it is a ‘high income, high risk’ enterprise.”
Jiang allegedly said that the traffickers received $50 per customer, and that the women were each charged $20 a day for housing and $40 any time they received transportation from the traffickers. The women also had to pay for their own food and hotels.
Jiang also allegedly said that if a woman didn’t make $800 a day, she was fired.
Jing and Navas posted “thousands” of ads on Backpage.com and communicated with customers, the charges said. Jing coordinated travel itineraries for the victims. Jiang picked up the victims at the airport, furnished apartments, collected the proceeds and deposited money in bank accounts belonging to Jing, Wu and Navas. Investigators found similar ads placed in states including Utah, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and New York, among several others.
The traffickers used text messages and WeChat, an instant messaging application popular in China, to communicate with each other, the victims and customers.
At least 10 victims were rotated through a house on the 1900 block of Burns Avenue in St. Paul between October 2016 and January 2017. When authorities searched a home in the 7800 block of Hemingway Avenue in Cottage Grove on Feb. 22, 2017, they found “hundreds” of used condoms inside a garbage can, according to the charges.
The investigation was a joint effort between the Washington and Ramsey County attorneys and police in Woodbury, St. Paul, Oakdale, Cottage Grove and Minneapolis.
Orput said the crime was “beyond immoral,” while Ramsey County Attorney John Choi called it the most sophisticated trafficking case he has ever seen, and praised the cooperation among departments.
“These victims were especially vulnerable, as they were trapped in a foreign country where they barely spoke the language and sold for sex,” he said in a statement. “Today marks significant progress in our statewide efforts to combat human trafficking.”
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708