A St. Paul federal judge has sentenced a Texas woman to 12 years in prison for her role in an international sex-trafficking ring that prostituted hundreds of Thai women in cities across the United States, including Minneapolis.

The sentence given to Waralee Wanless on Wednesday by Senior U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank amounted to less than half the 27 years federal prosecutors had sought, according to court filings. But it was three times the sentence sought by Wanless' attorney, who argued she was a victim who was first brought to the U.S. as a sex worker.

A Minnesota jury convicted Wanless and four other defendants in December 2018 following a six-week trial for their roles in operating the sex-trafficking enterprise.

Wanless, 41, of The Colony, Texas, was convicted on four counts including conspiracy to commit sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit money laundering. She started out as a sex worker in the organization and eventually ran prostitution houses in Chicago, Dallas and Washington, D.C., according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Shortly after the convictions, prosecutors called the case one of "modern-day sex slavery."

"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," said U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald at the time.

According to federal prosecutors, 31 additional defendants pleaded guilty for their roles in the "massive sex trafficking operation" before the 2018 trial.

Wanless' attorney, Lauren Campoli, argued for a lighter sentence, saying the defendant had grown up in poverty in Thailand, turned to prostitution as a teenager to survive and was a victim herself of the trafficking ring.

Campoli said Thursday that the case will be appealed.

"Prosecuting previous victims is not what our justice system is here to do. The focus should be on taking down privileged white men who are utilizing these vulnerable victims to make money," Campoli said.

In court documents, prosecutors said that Wanless had become house boss in three cities "for a sex trafficking conspiracy that exploited and victimized hundreds of women for more than a decade."

Prosecutors said their request for a 27-year sentence was a downward departure from the guidelines, which call for as much as life in prison. The case began in 2014 when a federal prosecutor and an agent for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security received a tip that a victim was being flown into Minnesota.

According to prosecutors, the sex-trafficking organization coerced hundreds of women to travel from Bangkok to the U.S. and engage in commercial sex in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, Seattle and Austin, Texas.

The women were promised a better life in the U.S. and the opportunity to send money back to their families in Thailand, prosecutors said. But after arriving they were forced to have sex with as many as 10 strangers and work up to 12 hours a day.

"The victims were isolated from the outside world, and their families in Thailand were threatened," according to the news release.

The sex-trafficking ring also engaged in widespread visa fraud to bring the women to the U.S. and engaged in "sophisticated money laundering in order to promote and conceal illegal profits." Law enforcement officials traced tens of millions of dollars to the organization.

Many federal, state and local agencies spent five years investigating the case, including Homeland Security, the IRS and St. Paul police.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037