Virginia police officers accused of protecting sex trafficking ring: Lawsuit

Nation/world

A federal lawsuit filed by a prominent civil rights attorney alleges that police officers in Fairfax County protected a sex trafficking ring in northern Virginia in exchange for free sex from the trafficked women.

The lawsuit also names the former Fairfax County Police chief, Ed Roessler, as a defendant, alleging that he helped cover up for the officers when another detective’s work threatened to expose their wrongdoing.

The suit was filed on behalf of a Costa Rican woman identified in the lawsuit only as “Jane Doe.” It says the officers would tip off the trafficking ring to suspend its advertisements on sites like backpage.com in advance of sting operations run by police.

Victor Glasberg, the lawyer who filed the suit on the Costa Rican woman’s behalf, said in an interview that police have essentially corroborated elements of the woman’s allegations by providing him the names of the officers involved in the alleged misconduct.

When Glasberg first filed the lawsuit in October, he did not know the identities of the officers who were allegedly involved, because his client was never able to learn their names. But he obtained a court order requiring the police department to identify the officers described in the complaint.

Police responded with two names: Michael O. Barbazette of Manassas and Jason J. Mardocco of Gainesville. Neither officer remains on the force.

Glasberg amended his lawsuit last week to include the officers’ identities.

Calls and an email to numbers and an address associated with Barbazette went unanswered. Calls and an email to numbers and an address associated with Mardocco were not returned. Neither has a lawyer listed in court records.

Glasberg said he tried for months to negotiate with the county to avoid filing a lawsuit, because he believes a trial will be an emotional burden for his client. While he’s seeking a monetary settlement for his client, Glasberg said his primary effort in negotiations was to ensure some level of accountability for the officers, but his negotiations were unsuccessful.

“I begged the county to resolve this without litigation. I said, ”Let’s get some accountability here,'” he said in a phone interview. “In the end they told me to go pound sand. … This lawsuit is going to be difficult for my client, but it’s going to be a whole lot more difficult for the county.”

Glasberg’s amended lawsuit also includes allegations from a former Fairfax police detective who says his efforts to investigate sex trafficking were thwarted by Barbazette, who was a sergeant and his supervisor.

As the detective, William Woolf, pressed his efforts to investigate, he said he was threatened by high-ranking officers. He said he even received a call from Roessler, whose voice he recognized even though he did not identify himself, saying “I need to make sure you’re willing to play ball,” according to the lawsuit.

Roessler resigned as chief earlier this year. During his time as chief, Roessler received praise from politicians and activists for his efforts at transparency and his willingness to support criminal charges against officers accused of wrongdoing. But officers on the force overwhelmingly supported no-confidence votes against him conducted by police unions.

Calls and an email to numbers and an address associated with Roessler were unanswered or disconnected.

According to the lawsuit, the Costa Rican woman was recruited in her native country to come to the U.S. and work as an escort, which she was told involved going on dates with wealthy men but would entail prostitution.

But when she arrived in the U.S. in late 2010, the woman who ran the trafficking ring, Hazel Sanchez Cerdas, took her passport and forced her to engage in commercial sex. When the woman said she wanted to leave, Sanchez alternately threatened to harm the woman’s family in Costa Rica or tell the family she was a prostitute, according to the lawsuit.

Sanchez pleaded guilty in federal court in Alexandria to running the prostitution ring and was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. Prosecutors in that case said women in Sanchez’s operation were required to have sex with up to 17 customers a day, and instructed to comply with requests even for particularly humiliating or dangerous sex acts.

There was debate during the case about the degree to which women were coerced, and defense lawyers argued that the victims had incentives to lie about how they were treated. But prosecutors argued that women did indeed have their passports confiscated and were threatened if they talked about leaving.

Sanchez’s lawyer said in court papers that trafficking ring operated from 2010 through 2012, but in the civil lawsuit and in an FBI affidavit, the Costa Rican woman said she was coerced into working for Sanchez through 2015.

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