Friday, July 19, 2024

Prosecutors say these IDs were used to rent brothel space in Cambridge, Watertown and Virginia and show the same person. (Image: U.S. Department of Justice)

A sole resident’s outburst about the trafficking of women came among hours of testimony to the City Council about a Middle East cease-fire resolution Jan. 29. Though shut down quickly for not being on the night’s agenda, it points to efforts by prosecutors and the media to whip up excitement in a case.

“I’d like to know why it’s okay for an elected official to engage in trafficking of vulnerable immigrant women in Cambridge,” resident Kathy Watkins said, saying that she was “only stating what is in The Boston Globe, not making an accusation.”

The comment was about a case that broke Nov. 8 as law enforcement officials said upscale apartments in North Cambridge and the Cambridge Highlands were used as “brothels” run in part by a Cambridge woman. The woman, Han Lee, and two men from Dedham and Torrance, California, were indicted Feb. 2 by a federal grand jury in a U.S. District Court in Boston on single counts of conspiracy to persuade, induce, entice and coerce women to travel for prostitution and of taking part in a money-laundering conspiracy.

Given the topic, the attention being given the case isn’t surprising. But the timing and selection of details released – or not – by prosecutors have led to a blurring of some aspects. Boston media have helped, but it means things may play out differently when defendants get before a judge or jury.

Prosecutors are looking to charge 28 people who may have been clients of the brothels, acting U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Joshua Levy has said. There were “a wide array of buyers” that included “politicians, high-tech and pharmaceutical executives, doctors, military officers, government contractors that possess security clearances, professors, lawyers, scientists and accountants,” Levy’s office said in a press release.

Levy has been with the U.S. Attorney’s Office only since January 2022; he was not on staff at the time the office pursued online-rights activist Aaron Swartz for downloading publicly funded articles from scientific journals, ending in Swartz’s suicide in 2013.

Lawyers for some of the accused wanted the hearings sealed, but the Globe and WBUR wanted them open. After Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court judge Frank Gaziano ruled Feb. 2 that they they should be open, 14 of the accused appealed the ruling on Wednesday to the full court.

Lynn (not her real name), a locally based sex worker who runs a support group for fellow sex workers and their allies, feels the court proceedings should be private. “It feels like the whole thing is a setup for PR purposes,” she said in a Feb. 5 phone interview. “It’s a juicy case.”

Government: Workers negotiated employment

The Globe’s coverage has been breathless, with more than 20 stories posted since Nov. 8. 

On the day of the council meeting, the Globe had posted a story that day in which activists talked about “the difficult challenge” facing the sex workers “of breaking free from a violent, abusive industry that controlled their lives and from the people who exploited them.” 

None of the activists said they had spoken with the women, whom law enforcement officials have identified as being Asian and communicate over a Korean messaging app.

The women negotiated their work, according to an indictment released to the public just short of three months into the case.

“The women generally had discussions with Han to reach an agreement about working as sex workers before they traveled,” the indictment said. The Cambridge suspect, described as the manager of the brothels, “needed to recruit women.”

Their managers picked them up at airports, drove them to the apartments where they worked and bought food and other needs for them, according to the indictments, and in this way managed to “persuade, induce, entice and coerce” the sex workers, according to the charges. “The women were persuaded to work for this prostitution network because the business maintained a regular customer base of men that were adequately screened,” the indictment says.

Prosecutors have not described violence or abuse in publicly released documents about the case.

The locked door

An affidavit released in November with facts underlying the indictment includes the detail that after dropping off a sex worker at an apartment, the Cambridge suspect “used a key to lock the door from the outside.” The author of the affidavit, U.S. Department of Homeland Security special agent Zachary A. Mitlitsky, added: “I believe the unknown Asian female remained inside the unit.”

In the Globe story about the advocates who hope the sex workers can be freed, the detail is repeated as though it is meaningful: That in “one instance, captured on surveillance video” one of the accused walks a woman to an apartment and “after the woman went inside, Lee locked the door from the outside and left.” There is no mention that the apartment’s door could be unlocked again from the inside – in fact, it had to be to allow in the day’s string of clients – and that the women were left alone for long periods. 

Asked about the detail and whether the affidavit was trying to imply the women were caged, a law enforcement representative said the government could only point to what was in court filings at the time.

Case makes no distinction

Mitlitsky, the author of the affidavit underlying the prosecution, is a specialist in human trafficking, and the Nov. 8 press release has only one tag – for “human trafficking.”

While a state charge of sex trafficking looks to whether a suspect caused another person to engage in commercial sex by buying or doing anything to help sell them, the federal statute faced by the three named people is different, according to a law enforcement representative familiar with the case. In a federal case, a suspect could be found guilty if it is proved the sex involved a minor or if someone was caused to engage in commercial sex through force, fraud or coercion.

The form of coercion described by the government isn’t readily recognized as the kind of coercion most think of from a dictionary definition: demanding behavior through force or threats.

In this case, Mitlitsky’s affidavit says the suspect “used coercive tactics to maintain the fluidity and effectiveness of the rotation of women as described [here] to further their prostitution network. Some of the tactics include, but are not limited to, delivering food to females so they do not have to exit the building and spend time away from the apartment, ensuring the unit is prepared before the arrival of a female, and assisting females with their luggage into the brothel units, and subsequently locking the door behind them after exiting.”

However a person is charged, a person “who is bought and sold is a victim of human trafficking and should be treated as such,” a law enforcement representative said. As described by the representative, the prosecution makes no distinction between women who agreed to work with the suspects after negotiating an employer-contractor relationship and had freedom of movement if they chose to use it; and a case in October 2013 when authorities said they’d freed two underage girls from a Michigan man and woman forcing them to work as prostitutes at what was then the Best Western Hotel Tria near Fresh Pond.

Economic arguments

Lynn, the sex worker, objected to the government’s portrayal of the case – and its application of the term “trafficking.”

“If they’re changing the definition of the word ‘trafficking’ from the meaning of ‘moving,’ why are they still using the word ‘trafficked’?” she said. “If you’re changing definitions of words, nobody’s going to understand.”

Like the advocates quoted by the Globe, Lynn hadn’t spoken with the sex workers in the case.

Her opposition to their work in the United States was economic, in part because “it’s unfair to move labor around the world – we already have labor here in Boston. We have people that live here and work here.” 

There is more about the business model in the case that upsets her: “Obviously I am not a big fan of brothels, and I don’t like brothel owners,” Lynn said. “I just worked all day. Did I have a brothel owner? Did anyone take half my money? No. Why would I need someone to take my money from me? Why do we need a middleman?”

Espionage or extortion

The government has said there may be hundreds more unidentified clients, and the location of a brothel in Virginia near Washington, D.C., and the Pentagon has inspired speculation that – although the suspects were by government accounts making hundreds of thousands of dollars through sex work – there are espionage or extortion aspects to the case.

Attention has begun to shift to a national security angle in part because “the Justice Department devoted significant resources to a multiyear investigation that isn’t focused on involuntary sex work,” reporter Miles Klee said in Rolling Stone, citing a former federal prosecutor. Los Angeles magazine – interested because one of the suspects is from the city of Torrance in Southern California – said “federal agents are now following the overseas money trail, which leads directly to South Korea” and wondering if “the brothels could have targeted men with access to U.S. secrets.”

No charges relating to espionage or extortion have been filed.