Five people were convicted Wednesday for their roles in operating an international sex trafficking organization that involved hundreds of Thai women in the United States, according to the Department of Justice.
The organization “coerced” the women from Bangkok to engage in sex acts for money in cities across the country, including Los Angeles, a news release by the DOJ said.
The defendants, Michael Morris, 65, of California, Thoucharin Ruttanamongkongul, 35, of Illinois and Pawinee Unpradit, 46, Saowapha Thinram, 44, and Waralee Wanless, 39, from Texas, were convicted of various charges including conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, Conspiracy to commit transportation to engage in prostitution and Conspiracy to engage in money laundering.
To conceal illegal profits, the defendants used “funnel accounts” to route cash to money launderers in Los Angeles and “laundered hundreds of thousands of illicit profits,” an IRS Criminal Investigations Division special agent said.
Investigators traced tens of millions of dollars to the organization, recovering $1.5 million in cash and $15 million in money judgments secured through plea agreements, the news release said.
A total of 36 defendants pleaded guilty for their roles in the same sex trafficking organization.
“The defendants convicted yesterday participated in a massive yet brutally efficient criminal enterprise that trafficked hundreds of vulnerable Thai women for sexual exploitation and used sophisticated money laundering techniques to conceal and sustain itself,” Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski said.
The victims mostly came from impoverished backgrounds, spoke little or no English, and came with the promise of a better life, the news release said.
The organization used fraudulent visas and travel documents to bring the women into the U.S. and encouraged them to enter sham marriages to get approval on visa applications, according to the DOJ.
Once the victims were brought into the U.S., they were kept in prostitution houses and were forced to have sex with strangers for up to 12 hours every day, the DOJ said.
The women were moved around between prostitution houses in different cities across the country and were not allowed to leave them without an escort from the organization, the news release said.
The organization allegedly threatened to harm the families of victims who tried to flee.
The 5 defendants were convicted after a 6-week trial in a U.S. District Court in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The three year investigation that lead to the arrests and convictions involved several agencies including the Department of Justice, Homeland Security Investigations, the IRS Criminal Investigation Division, the St. Paul Police Department and others.