A federal jury in St. Paul has convicted all five people charged with conspiring to traffic hundreds of Thai women for sex, siding with prosecutors who alleged during a six-week trial that the defendants and nearly three dozen other co-conspirators ran a lucrative business that spanned more than a decade and crossed international borders.
Jurors returned guilty verdicts on all counts Wednesday afternoon, barely a day after receiving the case following six weeks of trial. Two waves of defendants from across the country were charged in the case, beginning in October 2016 and again in May 2017. All but five pleaded guilty to avoid trial. Prosecutors described the case as “modern-day sex slavery” and argued that the defendants forced Thai women to work long hours having sex with multiple men daily to pay off “bondage debts” owed to traffickers for help coming to the United States. Prosecutors said victims, some of whom testified during the trial, were misled as to how much they truly owed and were threatened if they tried to leave the business.
Flanked by federal prosecutors, agents and a victims’ advocate, U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald described the case as one of the largest trafficking networks ever dismantled at the federal level.
“Sex trafficking is an industry that is built on supply and demand, and this organization fed that industry,” MacDonald said Wednesday. “It exploited, it abused, enslaved and sold women in response to the high demand for commercial sex that exists not only in the United States but here in Minnesota.”
Convicted on Wednesday was Michael Morris, aka “Uncle Bill,” 65, of Seal Beach, Calif.; Pawinee Unpradit, aka Fon, 46, of Dallas; Saowapha Thinram, aka Nancy or Kung, 44, of Hutto, Texas; Thoucharin Ruttanamongkongul, aka Noiy, 35, of Chicago; and Waralee Wanless, aka Wan, 39, of Colony, Texas.
All five were found guilty of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, conspiracy to use transportation for prostitution, conspiracy to launder money and conspiracy to use a “communication facility” — such as phone or internet — to promote prostitution. Morris also was convicted of an additional charge of sex trafficking by “use of force, threats of force, fraud and coercion.”
Senior U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank later thanked those in the courtroom — both government and defense — for listening to the verdicts dispassionately, saying “I know there are very strong feelings” after such a long trial.
According to prosecutors, women were made to have sex on a “near-constant basis” to pay off debts exceeding $40,000 to $60,000. Many were shuttled between apartments or spas in U.S. cities like Minneapolis, Chicago and Los Angeles, their services advertised on online forums where sex buyers would later comment and rate their performance. Less than two-thirds of what the women earned went toward their debts while the rest went to their “house bosses” who used some of the money to cover expenses associated with the business.
MacDonald said authorities seized $1.5 million and won another $15 million in court judgments in the case. The case began when a federal prosecutor and a Homeland Security Investigations agent followed a 2014 tip that a victim was being flown into Minnesota and traced her to the apartment where she was sold for sex.
Robert Sicoli, Morris’ attorney, said Wednesday that he was “somewhat shocked, especially by the speed of the verdict” given the trial’s length and amount of evidence to consider.
Paul Engh, an attorney for Thinram, predicted that all five defendants will appeal the verdicts.
“Deeply disappointed,” Engh said. “We thought we had a great shot at it. Everyone will appeal.”
Sicoli said “95 percent” of the government’s case turned on whether women were coerced into having sex for money. Defense attorneys for all five insisted that the women were willful participants in selling themselves for sex, pointing to examples of women sending earnings back home to help family and staying in the business well after paying down their debts.
Two defendants — Unpradit and Thinram — began as victims of the organization. Unpradit later went on to help funnel women to work at one of several houses of prostitution Morris operated in California. Thinram later opened her own business in Austin, Texas, after paying off her bondage debt. Her husband, who pleaded guilty, helped her run the house.
Panida Rzonca, directing attorney for the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles, said Wednesday that her organization is helping to represent about 20 victims linked to the case and made a plea for others to come forward, adding, “We can still help them; this is not the end.”
“There are hundreds if not thousands of victims of this organization — some of those women we know, some of those brave women testified at trial, some of those women we know their real names but we don’t know where they are. Some of them we know have nicknames, some of them we have pictures. … We’re going to continue looking for them,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams, one of two federal prosecutors who tried the case.