A former assistant Hennepin County attorney was accused in charges filed Thursday of running a high-dollar online prostitution ring that connected women from other countries with regular customers dubbed "Minnesota Nice Guys."
It's been more than two years since Minneapolis police started looking at alleged ringleader John St. Marie and a customer list of 30 business owners, lawyers, accountants and mortgage bankers in their early 40s to mid-60s who allegedly met the women at some of Minneapolis' finest hotels.
The group got its name because members had clean backgrounds, regarded themselves as above mistreating the women and paid well, investigators said. One women charged her clients $500 an hour.
St. Marie, 66, was charged with six felony counts of promoting prostitution, but none of the Nice Guys has yet to be charged. Police presented cases to the Minneapolis city attorney's office, which is reviewing them for possible misdemeanor prostitution charges.
Jim Dahlquist, St. Marie's attorney, said that although a long time elapsed between the start of the investigation and the charges, "I'm sure they [authorities] will have an explanation that will be somewhat plausible."
The accusations against St. Marie became public in a Star Tribune article more than a year ago. St. Marie declined to comment Thursday.
The charges were filed in neighboring Ramsey County to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. County Attorney Susan Gaertner said the charging delay was due to the case's complexity and her office's need to place a higher priority on cases with a higher public safety concern.
The year-long Nice Guys investigation, headed by the police department's Violent Offender Task Force, also helped bring down MyFastPass.com, the Twin Cities' largest locally owned prostitution website. The site was started in 2005 by a 47-year-old Woodbury woman who ran an illicit massage business in downtown Minneapolis for several years. Investigators discovered a database of more than 350 prostitutes and johns using her site, according to documents. The woman hasn't been charged.
Investigators said the Nice Guys ring was one of the most unusual they've seen in Minnesota and that its activities show just how sophisticated sex-trafficking networks have become. The group operated for three years, its members getting weekly e-mails advertising women who flew into town from Florida.
The investigation started in July 2008 after Sgt. Matt Wente and his partner, Sgt. Grant Snyder, got an anonymous e-mail from a john who said St. Marie was supplying illegal immigrants for prostitution. According to police, the e-mailer made contact with St. Marie at the Erotic Review, an international website for self-described "hobbyists" looking for high-dollar escorts.
On the site, St. Marie had "high status" because he was frequently praised in reviews for the quality of women he lured to Minnesota, police said.
St. Marie booked the women's flights and rooms and scheduled trysts between them and the other Nice Guys, the charges said. None of the women was forced into prostitution, but police said many fell into the business because they needed money. None is from the United States.
Police did surveillance in hotel rooms of several johns who were set up by women who worked for St. Marie but cooperated with police once the investigation began. The women shared customer lists with investigators and at their direction scheduled more appointments with the Nice Guys, the charges said.
One time, police said, they saw a man drive to his son's baseball game after a hotel rendezvous St. Marie arranged.
Police recorded a conversation between St. Marie and a prostitute about her appointments at a townhouse in Chaska, the charges said. The woman told police that in exchange for sex, St. Marie paid for her airline tickets and hotel stays, the charges said. Investigators posed as Nice Guys online and had conversations in which St. Marie admitted "that he was a pimp," the charges said.
At various times, investigators detained, interviewed and released at least six Nice Guys. Police found one of the women's appointment schedules during a search of St. Marie's computer. St. Marie has never been arrested in connection with the case, and his attorney said Thursday he has cooperated with authorities. St. Marie, who uses a wheelchair because of childhood polio, started the Nice Guys ring shortly after he retired from the Hennepin County attorney's office in 2003, police say. St. Marie didn't prosecute cases, but spent most of his 28-year career representing social service agencies and approving or revoking family foster care licenses.
He also worked in the office's Human Services Division, civilly committing mentally ill and chemically dependent people.
St. Marie can move only his neck and the fingers of his left hand. He said he feels relatively healthy but as a child never expected to make it to 66. Gaertner said his health would be most relevant if the case "gets to sentencing or the disposition phase."
David Chanen • 612-673-4465