Chicago customers of a Thai prostitution ring became key players in the nationwide operation — renting out apartments for the women, shuttling them from airports and even entering into a sham marriage with a brothel boss in order for her to work legally in the United States, authorities say.
“This is a unique twist I haven’t really seen before,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said.
A federal indictment unsealed Thursday charged 21 people across the country — including six in the Chicago area — with being involved in sex trafficking. A related indictment in October charged 17 others.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Office worked with the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations agents to shut down Thai brothels in the Chicago area and arrest six people authorities identified as participants.
Those charged include: Matthew Mintz, 25, Wilaiwan Phimkhalee, 38, Kanyarat Chaiwirat, 50, and Thoucharin Ruttanamongkongul, 34, all of Chicago; Mohit Tandon, 37, of Burr Ridge; and Richard Alexander, 52, of DeKalb.
The new indictment, unsealed in Minnesota, says sex traffickers in Thailand arranged for hundreds of Thai women to travel from Bangkok to Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, Atlanta and other cities to engage in prostitution.
The traffickers painted a rosy picture of the United States when they recruited the women, according to the indictment.
But the women were forced to pay leaders of the ring for debts supposedly associated with their travel and housing — making them sex slaves, the indictment says. Their debts ranged from $40,000 to $60,000.
Many of them were required to undergo cosmetic enhancements such as breast enlargement before they traveled to the United States, officials said.
Phimkhalee, Chaiwirat and Ruttanamongkongul allegedly acted as “mamasans,” running brothels in the Chicago area. Phimkhalee also is described in the indictment as being a sex trafficker.
The prostitutes usually kept about 60 percent of their pay, which typically was $200 an hour, with the rest going to the house boss, prosecutors said. They said the prostitutes were rotated among brothels across the United States.
Tandon, Alexander and Mintz are described in the indictment as “facilitators.”
A law enforcement source said Alexander was a customer of the prostitution ring, then married Phimkhalee in what authorities believe was a sham wedding in order for her to obtain a green card to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis.
All three men rented apartments for the prostitutes, sources said.
Law enforcement authorities must now decide whether to deport the Thai women involved in the ring.
Dart said he doesn’t have any qualms about the United States sending back the women running the brothels after their cases are adjudicated. But the women who were working off debts as prostitutes are another matter, he said.
“They’re victims,” Dart said, adding that he has concerns that they could face retribution in Thailand from traffickers and even from corrupt law enforcement officials.
“We want to make sure the victims aren’t put in a worse place than they were in here,” he said.
Since 2009, the sex operation has reaped millions of dollars, which were funneled back to Thailand through bank accounts structured to avoid federal reporting requirements, authorities said. The ring also used an informal banking system called hawala, according to the indictment.
Customers originally responded to ads placed on the popular Backpage.com website. But once law enforcement authorities started to infiltrate the site, the “johns” gravitated to private sites operated by the brothel managers themselves, officials said.
Customers rated the prostitutes on another website, and those who got low scores were threatened by their bosses to improve their performances or suffer physical harm to themselves or family members back in Thailand, officials said.
One woman linked to ads for prostitutes in the Chicago area is now serving a one-year federal prison sentence in West Virginia. Julie Karlsen, 63, of Buffalo Grove, admitted last year that she failed to pay $272,000 in federal taxes for income from a company that advertised escorts. According to sources, the Thai prostitution ring had advertised on her site.