Remarks as prepared for delivery.
Good Morning. Thank you to Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Downing for the introduction and thank you to Attorney General Sessions and Associate Attorney General Brand for hosting this Summit. As noted, I am Greg Brooker, the United States Attorney for the District of Minnesota. I am pleased to be here today to talk about an issue that my office is deeply committed to, and that the Department has placed such a high priority on: Prosecuting Human Trafficking Cases.
It is timely that this Summit comes at the end of Human Trafficking Awareness Month and with the Super Bowl taking place just two days from now in my home town of Minneapolis. I would like to take this opportunity to highlight trends and cases in my federal district, as well as talk about some of the proactive work we have done to prepare for a potential uptick in human trafficking during one of the world’s largest sporting events.
Sex trafficking is a market-driven enterprise, and empirical data show that a major sporting event like the Super Bowl can bring about an increase in online sex ads on Craigslist, Backpage, and other places. We also know from recent research studies that those who purchase commercial sex are not confined to one demographic group -- they come from all walks of life. According to a recent survey of 750 men in Minnesota, most sex buyers are men between the ages of 30 & 60. More than 70 percent of them are white, and half are married. Nearly 70 percent have kids and almost half make $50,000 or more a year.
A recent assessment by the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center (HSTC) concludes that high profile events with large crowds, like the Super Bowl, can be attractive targets for sex traffickers, and we know that there is a short-term uptick in advertisements during this period.
In preparation for the Super Bowl in Minneapolis, an Anti-Sex Trafficking Team with over 40 organizations was created to map out strategies to crack down on sex trafficking - from all angles - across the entire state. The Team is led by Hennepin County, which is Minneapolis, and Ramsey County, which is St. Paul. And the Team includes the US Attorney’s Office, Carlson Family Foundation and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, which have both been leaders on this issue. The Team also includes representatives from nonprofits, hospitals, private businesses, and law enforcement entities and has been supported by the National Football League.
So what has this Team been up to? We have developed a plan that includes additional emergency shelter beds, increased street outreach and a hotline to report trafficking related tips. We have created a 24-hour, fully staffed hotline to ensure victims can immediately find safe shelter. Service providers have worked with city governments to relax zoning requirements if needed during the timeframe of the Super Bowl to ensure that no one will be denied space in a shelter in the cold winter months in Minnesota. What is especially unique is that this Team not only brought together private and public sector stakeholders, but it includes the key voices of sex trafficking survivors.
The Team designed multiple public awareness campaigns, specifically for the Super Bowl, including the “Don’t Buy it” campaign, designed to educate men and boys about sex trafficking. This campaign aims to focus on the demand side.
Here’s a short clip of the “Don’t Buy It” Public Service Announcement running in Minnesota and Online:
“Don’t Buy it” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVE4Z2RXsCc
The Team also created a campaign aimed at preventing at-risk youth from being trafficked. The “I Am Priceless” campaign is geared toward youth between the ages of 8 and 12 who are at risk for being trafficked. The Team sought the input of youth who are trafficking survivors to develop the campaign, which is focused on reaffirming self-esteem and self-worth. These campaign ads are on posters at malls, on bus shelters, murals, billboards, and include a 30-second radio spot. They are being featured on social media apps like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube. Here’s a short clip of the “I am Priceless” video:
“I Am Priceless” https://vimeo.com/240218675
In the months leading up to the Super Bowl, bus drivers, hotel workers and all 10,000 Super Bowl volunteers received training on how to identify sex trafficking when they see it and where to report it. In addition, U.S. Bank has taken the lead to train internal investigators and analysts to identify trends and red flags that may be human trafficking indicators – this new Team is reporting directly to law enforcement.
A collaborative team of dozens of local police departments and federal agencies, led primarily by Homeland Security Investigations, FBI, and the Minneapolis Police Department, has made great efforts to plan and execute proactive strategies such as coordinating targeted sex trafficking stings during the week of the Super Bowl. And multiple arrests have been made.
Human trafficking, of course, is not limited to large-scale events like the Super Bowl. Sadly, these crimes against human rights occur 365 days a year. It is a prevalent and persistent problem that shows its face in many disturbing ways, yet often remains hidden in plain sight.
Many people wouldn’t think of Minnesota as one of the prime locations for human trafficking; however, the FBI has identified the Twin Cities as the nation’s 13th largest location for child sex trafficking in the country. Minnesota is unique in its geography, its diverse populations and its major industries. The Twin Cities represent a large metropolitan area that is home to more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies, a major international airport, the largest shopping mall in the United States, as well as multiple major league sports teams and event venues. We also share our northern border with Canada, we have an international shipping port in Duluth, and through our interstate corridors we are directly connected to other large Midwestern cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. The State has 11 federally recognized Indian Tribes and is home to many immigrant groups, including sizable Hmong, Somali, Ethiopian, and Liberian communities. Minnesota pretty much has everything. However, the things that make our state unique are also the things that present human trafficking vulnerabilities. Minnesota is also nationally recognized as a leader on human trafficking awareness – its Safe Harbor Law served as a template for federal legislation. This is why the fight against human trafficking is a crucial mission that none of us can afford to ignore or to only emphasize during a Super Bowl.
In 2016, the district was one of only six districts designated as an Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team (ACTeam) location. This is a collaborative initiative among my office, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor. Through this initiative, we focus on developing high impact human trafficking investigations and prosecutions, as well as developing strong partnerships with victim service providers and state and local law enforcement partners.
I am proud of the depth and breadth of the work of my office, in conjunction with our partners in federal, tribal, state, and local law enforcement. Together we have investigated and prosecuted trafficking cases ranging from large-scale, transnational organized criminal enterprises, to individual traffickers who target minor victims, to labor traffickers who prey on vulnerable, often foreign-born populations.
We know that as people go about their busy lives they usually aren’t paying attention to indicators of human trafficking, so these crimes often occur in plain sight. That’s why through our federal and state law enforcement task forces in Minnesota, we have trained those on the front lines to identify signs of human trafficking and to report it to law enforcement. Throughout the year, we are focusing our training efforts on employees who work in hotels, airports, casinos and other hospitality and entertainment occupations. We are also reaching out to schoolteachers and administrators, bankers, transportation industry workers, hospital workers and faith communities. These trainings throughout Minnesota have resulted in actionable tips that have contributed directly to the successful investigation and prosecution of human traffickers. We have also collaborated with an organization called “COAST” – Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking – to provide education and training to owners and employees of adult entertainment clubs who may be most likely to encounter the signs of a sex trafficking victim – currently my office is investigating such tips now.
Let me highlight a handful of the cases we’ve handled that are result of some of these tips.
Last year, in a wealthy suburb of St. Paul, local police officers encountered a woman wandering the streets at night, bloody, beat up and frail. She was heading in the direction of the airport. They stopped and spoke to the woman and because of their recent training; the officers were able to quickly recognize that the woman was a victim of human trafficking and were able to access the appropriate help and resources for her, including involving Homeland Security Investigations from the outset. The subsequent investigation revealed that the woman endured horrific abuse at the hands of the defendant, Lili Huang. In addition to being held against her will and forced to work up to 18 hours a day, the victim was kicked, punched, grabbed by her hair and threatened with knives. The victim told law enforcement that she hid clumps of her hair, which had been grabbed and torn out by the defendant, under her mattress so that she wouldn’t be forced to eat it. My Office worked hand in hand with our state and local law enforcement partners to achieve a successful prosecution of the defendant, who was ultimately sentenced to more than a year in custody after which she will be deported to China, ordered to pay over $100,000 in restitution to the victim and to third-party victim services, and required to forfeit her house.
In another all too common scenario, last year four teenage girls testified at a federal trial against a trafficker who had sold them for sex in the Twin Cities. The investigation began when a concerned mother reached out to her local Sheriff’s Office to report that a man named Deuvontay Charles was recruiting her 17-year-old daughter to engage in prostitution. In the defendant’s Facebook messages, he described how the girl could “make money” and promised a trip to Las Vegas and that “life will be smooth sailing.” He told her that he would provide condoms and protect her from the “clients.” The defendant also instructed the young girl to save his phone number as “Daddy.”
That initial report led to law enforcement identifying additional juvenile victims. A 14-year-old girl told law enforcement that this same defendant had requested sexually-explicit images of her. The defendant also sent two pornographic images of an adult female and instructed the 14-year-old victim to send pictures of herself in similar sexual poses.
The defendant trafficked a second victim, who was also only 14-years-old, and used her to produce sexually-explicit images. Charles asked the victim to make a video of herself engaged in sexual acts. While recruiting the victim, the defendant asked if she wanted “to make money.” When she asked what he meant, Charles replied “sex.” Knowing she was only 14-years-old, Charles responded that while she is “kinda young,” there would be a lot of money to make.
Charles preyed on yet another victim. He sent messages to a 17-year-old about making “quick money.” After picking the victim up in a Minneapolis suburb, he posted her as an “escort” on backpage.com. He then made a hotel reservation using an alias and paid for the room in cash. For the next several days, the defendant sold the victim for commercial sex and kept all the money the victim received as a result of the sex acts that she was forced to engaged in.
At the time he committed these offenses, Charles was a registered sex offender based on a prior conviction for soliciting a child to engage in sexual conduct.
Clearly, this man is a predator who targeted vulnerable young girls. Justice was served when the victims’ important testimony led to Charles’ conviction and a thirty-six year sentence in federal prison.
Our office is also actively prosecuting one of the largest transnational sex trafficking cases in the nation. This particular case is truly remarkable because of the collaborative efforts of multiple law enforcement agencies, victim service providers, and industry partners across multiple jurisdictions who took on this case and attacked the international criminal enterprise from every angle.
The investigation started through good old fashion police work. A federal agent with Homeland Security Investigations received a report from her HSI colleagues in Arizona that multiple Thai women were being trafficked in Arizona and the operation was moving some of the women to Minneapolis. Our office commenced an investigation with our federal and local law enforcement partners and, eventually, other federal, state and local jurisdictions from around the country.
We worked with multiple U.S. Attorneys’ offices, HSI, state and local law enforcement across the country, the Department of State, as well as components within the Department of Justice including the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit and the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section. Through surveillance, review of records and receipts, and other techniques, law enforcement learned that these victims were being trafficked in nearly every major city throughout the U.S. under the watchful eye of a massive criminal organization.
I would like to take a moment to describe the vast criminal enterprise that was responsible for trafficking hundreds of impoverished women from Bangkok, Thailand, to cities through the United States, including Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, Austin, Seattle and right here in the nation’s capital. Putting the pieces together required close coordination with international, national, state and local partners. It is the result of more than four years’ worth of work, and begins the current prosecution process of dismantling a highly profitable operation that generated millions of dollars through a highly sophisticated sex trafficking scheme.
These victims typically came from impoverished backgrounds and spoke little English- vulnerabilities that the traffickers exploited during the recruitment process. The women were promised a better life in the United States in exchange for a large “bondage debt,” of anywhere between $40,000 and $60,000. The women were told that, after they worked off their debt, they could become U.S. citizens. The recruiters who met with them in Thailand were friendly, helpful and made the future in the United States sound bright. They brought them to photography studios to take professional-quality, escort-style photographs, which ultimately were sent to traffickers here in the United States and used to advertise the victims for sex on websites. The traffickers also encouraged the women to get breast implants in an effort to make the women “more appealing” to men in the U.S. The cost of the cosmetic surgery was added to the victims’ bondage debt.
When the women arrived in the U.S., everything changed. They were essentially held prisoner in prostitution houses and only allowed to leave if accompanied by an employee of the organization. The women were forced to have sex with strangers for many hours every day, even if the men were abusive. They were threatened by the organization. The traffickers ensured that the women remained isolated in the United States. They had little money, no freedom of movement, and no interaction with the outside world.
The structure of this sex trafficking organization was hierarchical. It consisted of Traffickers, House Bosses, Money Launderers, Facilitators and Runners. Each of these players had their own clearly defined role to play in keeping this criminal organization profitable.
At the top of the organization were the Traffickers. Traffickers in the United States and in Thailand were responsible for recruiting the victims and controlling the bondage debt. They learned everything they could about the women, including detailed information about their families.
The information obtained about the victims’ families was an important part of the scheme. Armed with this information, the traffickers threatened anyone who wanted to or tried to escape the organization, including threats that their families would be harmed if the women did not do everything they were told.
The traffickers also determined where in the United States the women would be sent. But first, they had to get the women into the U.S. The traffickers did this by engaging in widespread visa fraud, including arranging sham marriages and lying on visa applications, in order to facilitate the travel of the women from Thailand into the United States. Once in the U.S., the women were sent to one of many houses of prostitution.
The House Bosses, who reported to the traffickers, were responsible for the day-to-day operations of these houses. They advertised the women, usually on websites like backpage.com, scheduled sex buyers, and ensured that the cash earned by the victim was routed back to the trafficker, with the house boss taking her cut. Little money was left for the victim herself to pay off the bondage debt.
The Facilitators assisted in the money laundering and other activities of the organization. They helped lease apartments and other locations used as houses of prostitution, book travel, advertise the women, and schedule commercial sex acts. They were also responsible for laundering and routing millions of dollars generated through this commercial sex trade.
And, finally, there were the Runners. The trafficking organization feared the women would try to escape, so the runners accompanied them when they left the house, apartment, or hotel room. The runners were also responsible for bringing them to and from the airport. The organization regularly moved the woman to different cities so that the women did not develop connections, to generate new clientele and to supply new markets. Runners also took them to the bank where the victims would deposit the payments on their bondage debt. The runners were typically men, and were often paid, at least in part, in sex with the victims.
This prosecution has been a massive undertaking. As noted, to date, it is one of the largest federal sex trafficking prosecutions in the United States. In total, we have publicly indicted 38 members of the organization.
Seventeen have thus far pleaded guilty. A trial date has been set for early May for the remaining defendants. Hundreds of victims have been recovered around the country. Millions of dollars have been seized, which will go toward much-deserved restitution to the victims. Weapons have also been confiscated.
One thing I would like to emphasize in particular is our work in helping the victims find hope and a sense of justice. As noted, this organization made millions of dollars annually and the prosecution team is working to secure that money for victim restitution. The DOJ Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS) is playing an integral role in this aspect of the case. MLARS has documented more than $25 million in proceeds from the commercial sex acts having been laundered back to the traffickers. When dealing with this level of organized crime, we know that we can only shut down a sophisticated sex trafficking organization when we take away their money.
My office has also collaborated with an organization in Los Angeles called the Thai Community Development Center, a DOJ grantee. They specialize in working with the Thai population to help provide victims with access to culturally sensitive and language specific resources and services. Today, some of the victims have learned English, some are taking vocational courses, and some are living independently and finding a future.
We take seriously the Department of Justice’s directive to take a victim-centered approach to our trafficking cases and, thankfully, Minnesota has unique resources that provide exceptional services to stabilize and support victims throughout a case’s full investigation and prosecution.
In conclusion, while the increased awareness and attention that the Super Bowl brings to this issue is important, I want to again emphasize that human trafficking is not a problem unique to the Super Bowl or any other major event. If we want to get the problem of human trafficking under control, awareness and enforcement efforts must continue long after the big game is over.