Prostitution case suspects could be victims of human trafficking

05/11/2008
 
By: SARAH MOORE , The Enterprise
BEAUMONT – Possible prostitution at two spas raided last week could be linked to a Houston-area operation and be part of a worldwide human trafficking network, Beaumont police investigators say.

Police suspect one spa owner, who lives out of state, might have been the owner of a similar operation in Montgomery County before being shut down.

Beaumont Lt. Curtis Breaux said the two women arrested Wednesday, Su Han Jun, 45, and Li Zhao, 51, might be among untold numbers of foreign women lured from their homes with promises of lucrative jobs. They then are ensnared in a web of debt and coercion amounting to a form of feudal bondage, Breaux said.

The two were arrested in a sting at the Sun Spa on Old Dowlen Road and VIP Spa on Calder Avenue. Police charged each with three counts of prostitution, a Class B misdemeanor.

If convicted, the women, who are Chinese, face up to six months in jail on each count. They also could be deported, immigration officials have said.

In addition to perhaps being the iceberg tip in a much larger prostitution picture, the case also presents a prosecution challenge similar to what police and lawyers have faced in larger cities.

Police and prosecutors must grapple with small penalties for the offenses, unwilling witnesses and absentee business owners.

Women are lured to work by ads on the Internet, in newspapers and by word of mouth, according to a 2006 Dallas Morning News report.

And while some of them might have known they were expected to prostitute themselves, the issue of consent can become blurred after their arrival, said Terry Coonan, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University.

“Consent is always the question. Did they consent initially, and did they continue to consent?” Coonan told the Dallas Morning News. “Even if they initially consented to doing this, even if they knew they were going to come over and work, did they know they were going to ultimately be held as a slave or not have recourse to leave and do anything else?”

Breaux said Jun and Zhao told police that they were free to come and go as they pleased.

“But that’s not necessarily true,” Breaux said of cases in general, adding that prostitutes often have a misplaced sense of loyalty to their pimps. “They tend to protect the people that are exploiting them.”

Beaumont detectives are working with the FBI, which has jurisdiction in international human trafficking cases.

Breaux said the Sun Spa owner might have owned KM Massage near The Woodlands – and previous legal actions related to that establishment might help law enforcement in Beaumont’s case.

The Montgomery County Attorney’s Office, working with the county sheriff and the fire marshal, secured a civil injunction closing KM Massage, according to a Texas County and District Attorneys Association newsletter posted online.

A judge ordered the parlor closed immediately after the state presented evidence showing that owner Kit Ming Chen “was flagrantly violating the licensing provisions for a massage establishment” and that imposition of a permanent injunction closing the business was warranted.

What, technically, constitutes prostitution?

Assistant District Attorney Michael Packard said it is considered prostitution when someone has either offered or solicited a sex act for money or other compensation.

He said the offer does not have to be spoken. It can be conducted through gestures or sign language – although use of nonverbal communication can make the case more ambiguous.

“Then we have to present it before a jury, and they will decide whether that person was agreeing (to an act of prostitution) or not,” Packard said.

Charging those who engage in prostitution and their customers is the least aggressive means of dealing with the problem, as the offenses are generally confined to the misdemeanor range.

While a third offense bumps up the crime to a state jail felony, punishable by up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine, it seldom gets to that point for various reasons, experts said.

Breaux said offenders often are sentenced to deferred probation, meaning that once they complete their terms, the case does not count as a conviction.

Also, if the prior offenses happened long ago or in another county, prosecutors might not be aware of them, Jefferson County Assistant District Attorney John Nelson said.

Nelson said he has only prosecuted a handful of felony prostitution cases in his 16 years with the county.

Moving up the legal food chain, aggravated promotion of prostitution is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

In the Beaumont spa cases, immigration status could be jeopardized, with deportations possible.

Breaux said it might prove difficult to prosecute the Sun Spa’s owner because he appears to be living in another state.

“We don’t have the kind of resources to dedicate to this kind of offense,” he said.

In addition, even if he were to be brought back to Texas, the case still could be tricky to prosecute, said Assistant District Attorney Clint Woods.

“If he’s out of state, he could just say, ‘I just own the business. I didn’t know what the women were doing,'” Woods said.

Woods said one way to prove involvement would be if bookkeeping showed revenues larger sums than a legitimate spa business could realistically generate.

The owner of the building that VIP Spa operated already has begun eviction proceedings against the business.

Sun Spa is under investigation by the city of Beaumont for code violations, as it appears that the place was also used as a residence, police said.

Breaux said it is almost impossible to eradicate prostitution in a community.

“All we do is try to keep it under control,” he said.

Breaux said prostitution has escalated in Beaumont since Hurricane Rita, when an influx of construction and utility workers in the region created a demand for sexual services.

The demand should only continue as refinery expansions draw still more temporary construction workers, he said.

http://www.southeasttexaslive.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=19679607&BRD=2287&PAG=461&dept_id=512588&rfi=6

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