8 arrested in investigation of alleged prostitution ring

Federal agents and police in Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles have arrested eight people after a two-year investigation into an alleged international prostitution ring that prosecutors say was used to enslave dozens of young Asian women who were brought into the country illegally.

According to a voluminous complaint unsealed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, the women were moved from brothel to brothel, from Los Angeles to New York, where they were forced to service as many as 20 men a day to pay off huge debts owed to the brokers who had arranged their transportation to the U.S.

Five Seattle men were arrested late Tuesday in concerted raids that also picked up a man and woman in Los Angeles and a man in Portland. U.S. Attorney John McKay said at a news conference yesterday that the investigation continues and more arrests are expected.

Those arrested in Seattle are charged with conspiracy and multiple counts of interstate transportation in furtherance of prostitution. They include:

• Johnny Cong Wu, charged in four counts and facing a maximum of 45 years in prison as the alleged operator of a Seattle brothel;

• Phui Dang, who is charged with two counts and faces up to 15 years for allegedly helping Wu operate the brothel, which moved every few months;

• Shek Yu Ng, who operated another brothel in Seattle and allegedly traded prostitutes with Wu, Dang and others. He is charged in two counts and faces up to 15 years in prison;• De Qin Zhang and He Qingping, both facing up to 15 years each for allegedly operating yet another Seattle brothel.

Agents in Portland arrested Kwan Tu and in Los Angeles, agents arrested Yuen Lam and Boon Cheun Lim, all named in two counts of the Seattle complaint.

Prosecutors said all of the prostitutes were young women, most from Southeast Asia, and their clientele was exclusively Asian. The operators of the brothels insisted on knowing the clients personally, and new visitors had to be accompanied by someone familiar to the operators. The intent, said prosecutors, was to thwart any investigation.

"It was a very closed circle," said McKay.

According to charging documents, the brothels were set up in apartments around Seattle, and the prostitutes were not allowed to leave. They worked up to 12 hours a day, splitting their proceeds between the brothel operator and the broker who brought them to America, according to prosecutors. A client would pay $120 per visit, and the prostitute would receive as little as $40, and rarely more than $80, of that amount.

The women were rotated from brothel to brothel every week or 10 days. They were driven to the airport by one brothel operator and picked up at their destination by another.

According to the charges, police used confidential informants, sophisticated electronic monitoring devices and extensive telephone taps in their investigation. They monitored cellphone calls and mounted tiny surveillance cameras on poles outside the apartments that housed the brothels.

Prosecutors said taped telephone conversations between the brothel owners and brokers demonstrated that the women were seen only as commodities. They were repeatedly referred to using such terms as "Malaysian meal," and their looks and abilities to please customers were common topics.

"These women are victims," said McKay, adding that several now are in the custody of immigration officials, and others are being held as material witnesses. "Many were poor and believed they were coming to America to find jobs."

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com.