Five people were arrested on suspicion of running a San Gabriel Valley-based sex trafficking ring that operated from San Diego to Fresno, authorities said Tuesday.
The five are suspected of forcing at least 28 victims, all Chinese nationals, into prostitution in nine counties across Central and Southern California, according to the Ventura County Sheriff's Office.
Hsin Chieh "Jerry" Wang, 40, of Covina, was accused of heading the organization. Officials allege that his sister, Yiwen Wang, 42, also of Covina, laundered money obtained from the sex trade.
Jiuyin Cui, 63, of Rosemead, and Runan Xia, 32, of Alhambra, were accused of taking clients to and from hotels and motels where the victims stayed, and Defung Hu, 33, of San Gabriel, allegedly coordinated the illicit appointments, according to detectives.
The arrests followed a six-month investigation by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies
In February, members of the Ventura County Sheriff's office, along with the District Attorney's Office and the Oxnard Police Department, began tracing suspicious advertisements found on backpage.com and other social media websites to motels throughout the county. During one sting operation, they identified a sex trafficking victim and determined that she was part of a larger organization that extended throughout the region.
Investigators formed a task force with additional partners, including the FBI, to gather evidence and information about the alleged trafficking group, and on Aug. 4, law enforcement officials executed a search warrant at an apartment in the San Gabriel Valley, arresting the five suspects. Authorities also seized several million dollars in assets, including three properties.
Authorities said there may be others involved, but the five in custody are believed to have led the operation.
The victims identified so far are all female Chinese nationals who came to the U.S. by legitimate means, such as work or school visas, according to officials.
"They get here and unwittingly enter this basically modern-day slavery situation," said Captain Garo Kuredjian, media-relations officer for the Ventura sheriff's office.
The women were taken to rented rooms where they were forced to perform sex acts over several days to a week. In many cases they were also the victims of violence and robbery.
"They incur debt by way of the hotel rooms, the food, and the transportation that they are unable to repay," Kuredjian said. "It's kind of like a hamster on a wheel. They will never be able to catch up."
According to Kuredjian, the victims have refused to cooperate with authorities.
"We're not sure if it's a cultural thing, or fear," said Kuredjian. "The victims spoke very little, if any, English."
If convicted of conspiracy to commit human trafficking, Hsin Chieh Wang and Hu face a maximum 24 years in prison. Cui and Xia face a maximum of 14 years, and Yiwen Wang faces a maximum of 4 years. All five suspects remained in custody, with bail set at $5 million each.