International Sex Trafficking and Money Laundering Rings in Southern California

By Opal Singleton

Imagine a sex selling ring so large that when the sex buyers call to make a date with a commercial sex provider, they reach a telemarketing center. It is real in Southern California and across the nation. There have been five sex trafficking rings ran by organized criminal enterprises discovered and several operated in the Inland Empire.  Most of the victims were women. Some were beaten, raped, robbed, threatened, and moved from place to place. Most were never allowed to keep the money they earned from their forced sexual services. The women were from China and South Korea and were forced to earn at least $800 a day or they were punished severely.

Jerry Wang from San Gabriel was sentenced to thirteen years based on 11 felony charges of conspiracy to commit human trafficking, pimping, and money laundering.   Wang was the mastermind of a sex trafficking ring where hundreds of sex ads were placed online offering a variety of commercial sex services from the counties of Ventura to Riverside and San Bernardino extending to San Diego. There were 28 identified victims. Wang’s girlfriend, Defeng Hu, acted as the dispatcher, interacting with the male sex buyers, directing drivers to deliver the female and deciding which sex provider would be forced to provide services.

The “johns” or sex buyers thought they were calling a local girl for a quick meet up in their neighborhood. Instead, this sex trafficking ring posted the same ads in many different cities and the sex buyer would reach a centralized telemarketing center who dispatched out the closest sex provider.

The victims were in “debt bondage.” Most came into the U.S. legally with work or student visas and had been brutally duped when they were recruited in China. They thought they were paying a fee for a legitimate job or a chance to go to a U.S. university. Not only did they not get to keep the money they earned selling sexual services, they were forced to pay Jerry Wang and his organized criminal enterprise for each sex ad where they were advertised, the driver who drove them to the date, and any food or hotel rooms used. At the end of each day, they were deeper in debt to their captors. 

Large scale sex trafficking rings are all about money laundering. Investigators were able to trace the proceeds derived from the sex selling activity to 50 different bank accounts in nine different banks in southern California. Mr. Wang’s sister was later convicted and sentenced for money laundering as millions of dollars derived from forced sexual exploitation were used in the buying and selling of real estate.

In the case of Sophia Navas from Chino Hills, more than $1.5 million dollars in sex trafficking proceeds were confiscated derived from illicit sex services organized by Navas and her daughter. This sex trafficking ring was operated in an upscale town house in Irvine, as well as Minnesota and North Dakota. Again, the women were in debt bondage to their captor being forced to turn over the proceeds earned through commercial sex and then charged for housing, transportation, and their own food. This sex trafficking ring was so large that investigators discovered over 20,000 sex ads placed by Navas and her daughter advertising the services of their victims. At the time of their arrest, law enforcement found two mattresses in the upscale Irvine townhome and a line of men waiting to have sex with the three women found inside the home. Ms. Navas was sentenced to twelve and half years for operating this multi-state sex trafficking ring from her home in Chino Hills.

One of the first indicators of just how organized and expansive these sex trafficking rings are started with the case of a multi-state, multi-national sex trafficking ring that recruited hundreds of poor, naïve, and vulnerable women from Thailand. These women were brought to the U.S. legally under tourist visas and believing that they could earn quick and easy money in commercial sex, pay off their debts to their recruiters, and send money back home. This sex trafficking ring generated tens of millions of dollars in income and used the “hawala-based” money laundering method to divert the funds back to Thailand. Family members and trusted individuals would carry large volumes of cash on their person, including hiding cash in clothing and dolls. Few U.S. sex buyers understood that the money they paid for a few minutes of illicit commercial sex was funding an international sex trafficking ring headquartered in Belgium and Bangkok.

Even more surprising is to understand the magnitude of these operations taking place in our communities with funds spent by local southern California sex buyers and the vast amount of income they can generate ends up being laundered to foreign countries. Over the past few months, another nationwide sting operation targeted illegal Asian brothels which resulted in an indictment of a Temecula woman accused of operating a telemarketing sex buyer dispatch center for a sex trafficking ring providing commercial sex services in Oregon, Washington, Vancouver, and Australia. 

The dispatcher used a sophisticated computer program to schedule and track all the prostitution dates. The program had a customer database that logged more than 30,000 customer phone numbers and details of previous sex buyers. The victims were primarily from impoverished Chinese backgrounds, who spoke little or no English, and were fearful their families back home would be harmed.

Many of us are aware that sex trafficking in the U.S exists, and legislative and advocacy groups have been diligent in addressing the issues of protecting our families and children. Few people in the U.S. are aware of how organized criminal organizations are actively exploiting and profiting from forced commercial sex in southern California.   Even fewer of us can comprehend that the demand of illicit sex, even with the awareness that the victims are being horribly violated, is so great that the dates are being dispatched through a local telemarketing center operating in their own neighborhood.

The following are a few things to watch for if you believe a sex trafficking is taking place in your community. Residential brothels are rental properties where large numbers of men are coming and going each day, especially at night. Illicit massage parlors are often kept locked and are open late hours even into the early morning. They are not branded with printed materials offering regular spa services, but rather individual services are negotiated on the spot. The massage service providers often do not speak English, and there is a significant turnover of service providers. There may be signs individuals are living in the commercial facility. Motel/hotel operators are now required to be educated on sex trafficking as much of the sex buying and selling takes place in motels/hotels. Potential victims are often scared and withdrawn, they may not speak English and are reluctant to interact. They fear deportation, along with and physical and psychological harm.

If you see a potential sex trafficking victim, call 911 immediately. Do not get personally involved as these can be dangerous situations. If you suspect there is an illicit commercial sexual activity scenario taking place in your community, you can report the situation to the national human trafficking hot line at 1-888-373-7888. 

Opal Singleton is the president and chief operating office of a Million Kids, which provides outreach and training on sex trafficking, and is the coordinator for the Riverside County Anti Human Trafficking Task Force. 

This article was originally published in Riverside Lawyer Magazine.


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