Work began at 8 a.m., the young Thai woman testified, and often didn’t end until 10 p.m. when she finished having sex with the last of as many as 10 men responding each day to the scantily clad photos in ads her bosses posted online.
“I had to do everything that the women at their house couldn’t give them,” she tearfully told a federal jury in St. Paul on Tuesday. “I had to treat them as if they were my personal god, and I loved them the most within the time that was given. I had to make them feel that they were special.”
Referred to by her nickname, Amy, the young woman spoke through an interpreter as she described falling prey to a sweeping and lucrative organization that trafficked hundreds of Thai women to the United States to be sold for sex. Five people described by prosecutors as “higher level” members of the group are the last to face charges in a trial that began earlier this month. They are among 39 charged in the case since 2016. The rest have pleaded guilty for their roles in one of the largest international sex trafficking conspiracies ever dismantled by federal law enforcement.
Federal authorities in Minnesota helped lead a probe called Bangkok Dark Nights, which began with reports of Thai women being flown into the Twin Cities and shuttled between apartments. According to court papers, the organization dated back to at least 2009, and the women were made to have sex with customers on a “near-constant” basis to pay off “exorbitant and fraudulent bondage debts” ranging from $40,000 to $60,000.
Prosecutors say Thailand-based traffickers initially recruited the women — some who later joined the conspiracy themselves — and were often called “ma-tac” or “mother of the contract” because they held the women’s bondage debts. They fraudulently procured visas and made travel arrangements to U.S. cities like Minneapolis, Chicago and Los Angeles, where the women would be holed up in apartments or spas where they had sex with customers.
“I work in there, I eat in there and I sleep in there,” Amy said of a one-bedroom apartment in the Phoenix area to which she was at one point assigned. Online ads, including on the since-shuttered Backpage.com, called her “Your Asian doll KIM,” and Amy told jurors she was instructed to lie about her age to make her appear even younger than she was.
Only 60 percent of what the women earned went to pay down their debts, with the rest used to pay “house bosses” who ran the day-to-day operations of the houses of prostitution, according to the government.
On trial in St. Paul is 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 the Colony, Texas.
Morris allegedly ran several houses of prostitution in California and allegedly worked closely with Unpradit, who prosecutors said had a bondage debt of her own and funneled women to work at Morris’ houses. Thinram began as a victim of the organization before going on to opening her own business in Austin, Texas, after she paid off her bondage debt, according to charges. Her husband, Gregory Kimmy, has since pleaded guilty for his role in helping Thinram run the house.
Ruttanamongkongul allegedly joined the organization after first working as an au pair in Chicago. She is accused of working as a facilitator, scheduling sex buyers and posting advertisements online in addition to running a house of prostitution in Chicago. Five other Chicago-area house bosses have pleaded guilty in the case. Wanless also owned a house of prostitution in Chicago and Dallas.
Defense attorneys expect to challenge the government’s assertion that victims were made to enter the sex trade by “force, fraud or coercion.” As Chabaprai Boonluea, who has since pleaded guilty to sex trafficking and money laundering charges in the case, testified Tuesday, attorneys seized on her willingness to continue having sex with johns well after she paid off her bondage debt.
“You did it on your own free will, correct?” said Robert Sicoli, Morris’ attorney. “And you certainly never forced anybody to engage in prostitution, correct? And you never coerced anybody, is that correct?”
Questioning Amy later in the day, Sicoli pointed out multiple vacation trips she took with her boyfriend in 2015 while still under debt or just off debt that year.
But in briefings to Senior U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank outlining the government’s case, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Melinda Williams and Laura Provinzino have argued that the victims’ isolation and inability to decline constant sex buyers amounted to “psychological coercion” meant “to break the victims down and prevent the victims from fleeing the organization.”
Money laundering was also central to the conspiracy, the prosecutors said. “Funnel accounts” set up in victims’ names helped conceal proceeds. Co-conspirators also smuggled cash in bulk, wired funds and used an informal “hawala-based system” to transfer money overseas. Under that system, a person is paid in one location and instructs an associate elsewhere to pay the final recipient. Nine defendants described by the government as “professional money launderers” have all pleaded guilty ahead of trial.
Two Minnesotans — John Zbaracki and John Ng — were among the 39 charged, and both pleaded guilty. They admitted to joining the organization after first being customers and assumed the role of “runners” who drove victims to and from airports and accompanied them to trips to the bank or to buy condoms and lubricant. The men admitted to being paid both in cash and in sex with victims, some of whom, like Amy, were recruited into the sex trade by operatives seeking to prey on economic vulnerabilities.
Amy testified Tuesday that she came to the U.S. to try to pay off unexpected interest associated with a loan used to pay for repairs after her mother’s beauty school was flooded in Thailand. She still smiled when she described to jurors the feeling of finding out that her visa application had been approved.
“I thought America was a miracle country,” she said.
The government is now supporting her in her pursuit of a true visa for victims of trafficking.