Saturday, November 22, 2003

p. 4.

Sex-slave underworld; Korean women seek new life in U.S., end up in Colo. brothels

South Korean women gambling on illegal passage to the United State for a new life are ending up as sex slaves in dozens of Colorado massage parlors.

They live in the same rooms in which they are forced to have sex — bare closets hidden behind the parlors' facades, according to local, state and federal officials.

The officials have been investigating the more than 40 massage parlors in Colorado they say make up a complex network of brothels that feed illicit funds to a criminal organization in South Korea, the Rocky Mountain News has learned.

Operation Rising Sun includes members of the Denver, Aurora and Longmont police departments, Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Attorney's Office, as well as other sheriff's and police departments across the state.

The law enforcement officials have been quietly working on the international investigation since the summer of 2001, but the case didn't become public until Friday when a federal court document was accidentally made public.

The document, which was supposed to be sealed, requested the forfeiture of cash seized at eight named spas.

The investigation started after Denver vice detectives and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation noticed a surge in the number of Korean massage parlors that were suspected fronts for prostitution.

A group of people were brought into the state by the criminal organization to set up a chain of parlors around August 2001, law enforcement sources told the News. Many running the spas have created similar rings in other states, including Texas and California.

Law enforcement sources said their investigation found that this team of criminals operated an extremely complex web of brothels across the state.

They detailed the operation as follows:

Each month, the parlor operators meet to discuss the business operation and transfer much of the profits to a single spa. That money eventually works through all of the spas before being transferred to California. The money is typically sent by wire or express shipping if under $10,000 or by an employee, known as a taxi driver, for larger sums.

Once in California, the money is transferred back to the ring leaders in South Korea.

The documents released Friday provided further indications the operations are highly organized, including:

The women, smuggled into the country and forced to become sex slaves, have been ordered to cut up used condoms after each client and flush them in toilets. They were also told to swallow condoms if they were arrested by police.

Undercover agents found that clients are led through an intricate welcoming process that allows the spa managers to search their personal belongings to verify they aren't lawmen.

Once in a room, prostitutes only make offers of sex by pantomiming, never saying the words aloud for fear of being caught on tape.

Most of the spas have innocuous names like Sun Gold Spa, VIP Salon and Sun Health Spa.

When contacted last week by the News, an employee of the Spring Spa in Longmont declined to talk about the case.

The front door of Spring Spa opens to the sound of a digitized cat call. Inside is a small waiting room furnished with a cheap love seat, couch and a coffee table layered in months-old magazines.

A half-wall blocks any sight of what is beyond the room. In the center of a door in that wall is a large sign that reads "Ring bell" and a door bell.

The woman who answered the ring stood in the partially opened door as she talked to a reporter.

She declined to give her name, but said all of the women working at the spa when law enforcement raided it in August have been replaced.

"We have all new woman," she said. "I don't know what's going on."

Three women were taken into custody during the August raid, according to police reports. The raid was one of about two dozen conducted across the state that day.

In Longmont, police discovered filthy massage rooms littered with drug paraphernalia, stained sheets and costumes and bags of condoms.

A woman found in one shower room was washing a poodle.

When contacted in California Friday night, a friend of one of the women arrested in the raid said police were just after the money.

"They are just squeezing them for money, plain and simple," said the man, who declined to give his name.

The investigation is in its infancy, according to multiple sources involved in the operation.

Although several people have been taken into custody on state charges, no one has been charged federally, said U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Jeff Dorschner.

Immigration officials also have taken several people into custody, saying they are in the country illegally, he said.

Contacted Friday, Dorschner could not provide the exact number of people in the sex ring who have been arrested.

Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman acknowledged that his department was involved in the investigation but little else.

"This is an ongoing, complex investigation," he said. "I don't want to discuss any of the details; it might jeopardize some of the things we still need to do."

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Created: January 5, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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