The defendants, most local, are accused of selling Somali girls into prostitution, and of fraud.
The Somali gang members, with nicknames like "Fatboy," "Forehead" and "Pinky," passed the girls around like chattel for sex with other gang members or with paying customers. One girl they sold for liquor. Another they pimped for a blunt. Sometimes, they picked the girls up from school, to have sex in apartments or abandoned garages or even in a restroom stall in a suburban shopping mall.
Twenty-nine people, mostly from the Twin Cities, are accused of running an interstate human trafficking ring that sold Somali girls -- one as young as 12 -- into prostitution. In a federal indictment made public in Nashville on Monday, officials accused gang members of running a decade-long prostitution business that included credit card fraud and burglary totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Their alleged crimes crossed state lines, as investigators say girls were driven from the Twin Cities to Nashville and Columbus, Ohio. Another victim was allegedly sexually assaulted in Seattle.
Local investigators say that several of those charged with trafficking are longtime leaders of the Somali Outlaws and Somali Mafia gangs; the Outlaws are considered the largest Somali street gang in the state. One source familiar with the investigation hinted that the human trafficking investigation is just the tip of a much deeper criminal enterprise that goes beyond the United States.
"Human traffickers abuse innocent people, undermine our public safety, and often use their illicit proceeds to fund sophisticated criminal organizations," said John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which participated in the arrests.
"ICE is committed to bringing these criminals to justice and rescuing their victims from a life in the shadows. We will continue to fight the battle to end human trafficking both here in the United States and around the globe."
Local sources say that although the gang members have been indicted on prostitution charges, the Outlaws and Mafia make the majority of their money through credit card and insurance fraud and burglary of telephone cards. They have been involved in violence, including the killing of a man in Hopkins, the sources say.
These Somali gangs are also different from typical gangs because they don't "own" a territory and are very mobile, the sources said. They float between Minneapolis, the suburbs, St. Cloud and Rochester. It's not surprising, the sources said, that the Outlaws and Mafia traveled to other cities to commit crimes, because they have relatives to live with and blend into the community.
The gangs are well-organized, but they are hard to track because they move frequently among law enforcement jurisdictions, and sharing information about them becomes more difficult for authorities, the sources said. They are also hard to document because members don't have gang tattoos or display signs or symbols, the sources said.
On Monday, investigators with ICE, the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service and several local police departments arrested at least 25 of the 29 people indicted. A dozen suspects from the Twin Cities made their first appearance in federal court Monday afternoon in Minneapolis. Another nine were arrested in Tennessee, officials said. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minneapolis said at least three suspects remain at large.
Parents, elders came forward
St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith credited Somali parents and elders with coming to police investigators in 2007 with concerns about young girls and gang activity.
Those concerns sparked an investigation by members of the Gerald Vick Human Trafficking Task Force, which includes officers from a number of local and federal agencies, including the St. Paul Police Department and ICE.
The case came to light about 18 months ago when one of the victims was found by police in the Nashville area. She is one of four sex trafficking victims whose situations were detailed in the indictment made public Monday. At the time the girls were first prostituted, one was 12 years old, one was 13 and two others were younger than 18.
The indictment provides little detail regarding how they were recruited or coerced, other than to say that one was "enticed" into having sex with gang members before she was turned over to paying customers.
Another, who had an argument with her mother and left home, approached one of the women who was indicted -- Hamdi Ali Osman, or "Big Hamdi" or "Boss Lady" -- for help. Osman allegedly told the girl that she would support her with housing and food in exchange for her having sex with customers.
Smith likened the victims' time with the gangs as "indentured servitude," and said fear, intimidation, threats and acts of violence against them and their families likely kept them from speaking out sooner.
Michael Feinberg, special agent in charge of ICE's local office, said the biggest obstacle to busting human trafficking is persuading victims to come forward. Many are convinced that they will be punished or deported, he said. "We are trying to take a victim-centered approach," he said.
The sex trafficking offenses carry a penalty of not less than 15 years to life in prison.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Franklin Noel on Monday agreed to release four of the 12 suspects who appeared before him on the condition that they remain law-abiding until their next hearing this week. Noel agreed with defense attorneys that they did not pose a risk to flee -- either because they didn't have a criminal record, or had jobs and family in the area.
Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office asked that all 12 be held in custody at least until those hearings. All 29 suspects will eventually have to appear in court in Nashville.
It was not known late Monday whether the U.S. Attorney in Nashville planned to appeal Noel's decision.
Defendants' families react
Some family members openly questioned why some of the suspects were arrested at all.
With community activist Omar Jamal as his translator, the father of one defendant vehemently denied the charges. "The kids have initially been intimidated through aggressive interrogation by police in St. Paul," said the man who identified himself as the father of Abdullahi Sade Afyare. "As religious people, we don't believe in engaging in sex trade."
The brother-in-law of another defendant said he was shocked to hear of the charges against his relative. "What I believe is he didn't do nothing," the brother-in-law said. "I don't know where this came from."
Outside the courtroom where his pregnant sister, Bibi Ahmed Said, had just made her first appearance, Abdi Said denied his sister's involvement in a sex trafficking ring. Bibi Said is charged with attempting to influence the testimony of somebody who was going to testify to the grand jury.
Abdi Said said his sister is in trouble because of her husband's gang affiliation, and "some things he did in Tennessee."