Six people have been indicted in Seattle on federal charges after allegedly using illegal Asian immigrants for a multi-state online prostitution ring.
On Monday, four of the six plead not guilty in federal court to prostitution, conspiracy and money laundering charges.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the indictments came following undercover operations that included the King County Sheriff’s Office, Kirkland and Bellevue police departments and federal homeland and customs enforcement.
"This case is more than prostitution, money laundering, and conspiracy. It is about human trafficking," said King County Sheriff John Urquhart. "The Sheriff's Office is committed to fighting human trafficking and holding responsible those who engage in this despicable activity.”
The suspects allegedly advertised Asian women for “massage services” on backpage.com and leased apartments in Bellevue and Kirkland, as well as in Arizona, Illinois and Virginia to conduct prostitution.
Many of the women were in the U.S. illegally, having stayed after their visas expired, said prosecutors. The women allegedly owed debts of as much as $60,000 to the ring leader and knew they were being brought to the U.S. to work in the sex trade in order to settle those debts.
"These defendants exploited vulnerable women immigrants to enrich themselves," said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said those indicted include:
- Unruean Aboulafia, 34, of Bellevue. The alleged ringleader of the scheme is a Thai national who was in the U.S. illegally. She allegedly recruited the women from Thailand and advertised their services on backpage.com.
- Thanyathorn Mohr, 35, of Bellevue. The Thai national, in the U.S. legally, allegedly was the "operator" for the women, responding to the calls generated by the backpage.com ads, scheduling appointments and directing clients to the apartments.
- Jeff Chu, 48, of Bellevue allegedly leased various apartments for the group in Bellevue and in Illinois, in both his name and the name of his ex-wife. He allegedly laundered the money through various bank accounts.
- Xinpink Zhang, 38, is Chu’s ex-wife. The Chinese national who is legally in the U.S. allegedly rented various apartments, collected money and laundered funds.
- Edward Flanigan, 57, of Federal Way allegedly rented apartments for prostitution in Washington and Arizona.
- Steven Aboulafia, 59, of Nevada is the ex-husband of the alleged ring leader. He’s accused of leasing apartments in Washington and Virginia and collected money from prostitution.
Conspiracy to transport individuals for prostitution and conspiracy to use a communications facility to promote prostitution are each punishable by up to five years in prison, and conspiracy to engage in money laundering is punishable by up to twenty years in prison.