Undocumented women smuggled from Asia for sex trade, feds say
Bill Wallace, The San Francisco Chronicle
Federal immigration and customs agents have broken up a San Francisco prostitution ring, with ties to international smuggling operations, that used undocumented Asian women as sex workers, according to federal court documents unsealed Thursday.
The ring provided sexual services to scores of men each week at four brothels in residential neighborhoods in the western half of the city, the documents said.
The court papers, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, indicate that the prostitutes were part of a smuggling circuit that operates between Canada and such U.S. cities as Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and New York. After they had worked in at least one of four brothels, they were sent elsewhere on the circuit.
It was unclear Thursday exactly how many women worked for the alleged operation, but court affidavits said that from two to four prostitutes were on duty at each of the brothels on any given night. The prostitutes were reassigned every few weeks, papers said.
Agents of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, armed with federal search warrants, raided four locations in neighborhoods south of Golden Gate Park on Jan. 14. Two days later, they arrested a woman who authorities say is one of the leaders of the operation. They identified her as Yuen Ling Poon, 36, of 48 Chancery Lane in San Francisco.
Poon is charged with conspiracy, trafficking of humans for sexual purposes across state and international lines, and harboring illegal immigrants, according to court records.
The licensed haircutter, who owns the Chancery Lane house with her husband, Kwok Wai So, 38, posted $75,000 bail and was released from custody.
Affidavits say Poon and unnamed associates smuggled undocumented women from such countries as Thailand, China, Korea and Malaysia to be sex workers in her brothels.
Customers typically paid $120 each for sex with the women, the documents said. The prostitutes were ordered to give $40 from each transaction to the brothel operators while keeping $80 for themselves.
Calls to Poon's home went unanswered Thursday, but her attorney, Lawrence Wong, said he saw the federal government's case as flawed because it alleges state crimes, not federal.
The government's evidence outlined in the affidavits, Wong said, is that his client engaged in running houses of prostitution, not smuggling or harboring illegal immigrants.
"They say my client was involved in a conspiracy, but they don't talk about meetings with anybody else where this was discussed," he said. "They say she was smuggling people across international and state lines, but they show no management, control or custody of the people she was supposedly smuggling. They say she was harboring illegal aliens, but there is no evidence she was harboring them. She was using them in prostitution. ... Well, that is a state action, not a federal action.
"The government is being overzealous in this case. They are overcharging it," he said. "The facts here are defective as far as I am concerned, and I am going to attack them."
Another woman, Bo Song, who allegedly was working at one of the brothels, was arrested for investigation of immigration violations and remains in custody. Federal court documents say Song has prior prostitution arrests in San Francisco and Sunnyvale.
Several of the illegal immigrant women who were found working in the alleged brothels are being detained, but their status was unclear Thursday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Gruel, who is handling the case, declined to discuss details. But Gruel, who has won convictions in several other human smuggling operations since the early 1990s, opined that trafficking in human beings "is a big-money business and too lucrative for organized crime to ignore and walk away from."
The four raided dwellings are:
-- A ground-floor apartment in a beige duplex with brown trim at 155 Buckingham Way, near the Stonestown shopping mall.
-- A two-story, single-family home painted light blue with white trim at 2054 19th Ave. between Pacheco and Quintara streets.
-- A first-floor apartment in a green four-story apartment with black trim at 132A Carl St., about two blocks from the southwest corner of Golden Gate Park.
-- A two-story, blue, single-family home with white trim at 1671 33rd Ave. , three blocks from the Sunset Recreation Center.
Two sites searched during the investigation were Poon's home and a two- story residence at 3919 Noreiga St.
During the raids, agents seized $31,500 in cash and 3,000 condoms at Poon's home. They later seized about $120,000 in cash that was stored in a safe deposit box at a downtown Bank of America branch.
The investigation began in May when an informant tipped agents "regarding the proliferation of underground prostitution houses in the San Francisco Sunset District," said one of the documents, a 50-page affidavit filed by Senior Special Agent Michael Desmond of the immigration bureau.
Desmond said the locations had been placed under constant surveillance, and agents retrieved trash from each site to sift for clues about unlawful activity.
They uncovered a wealth of evidence that commercial sex was being offered at the locations, Desmond said, including hundreds of used condom wrappers that were recovered from each site. Agents also made videotapes of scores of men making brief visits to each house.
Desmond said agents and informants pretending to be potential customers had made tape-recorded calls to the houses of prostitution inquiring about the availability of females, hours of operation and details. During each call, Desmond said, investigators received further confirmation that the sites were being used for commercial sex.
Unaware of the federal investigation, San Francisco police raided one of the alleged brothels three week ago, said Lt. Joe Dutto of the vice crimes detail.
"It was a house of prostitution," Dutto said. "We sent in our undercover officers and arrested individuals. We had numerous individuals calling up and complaining.''
Dutto said he had learned that federal investigators were doing a larger case, and he welcomed their intervention because those arrested faced only misdemeanor charges.
During the searches on Jan. 14, male customers found in the brothels admitted to the agents that they were there to hire women for sex and detailed how much they were expected to pay for the services, Desmond said.
They also identified Poon as the manager of the operation, he said.
Linette Peralta Haynes, the project director for an anti-human-smuggling project of the social service organization SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation), said such operations "are a form of modern-day slavery. Typically what happens is that people who are living in poverty, under the strife of war or undergoing political persecution, are looking for a new life in the U.S. (But) they end up working long hours, their documents are taken from them, and they are forced into prostitution, sexual exploitation and slavery."
San Francisco's alleged ring is believed to be the biggest uncovered by a federal prostitution investigation in the Bay Area since 19 people were indicted by a federal grand jury in early 2001.
But in the earlier case, the brothels were located in suburban neighborhoods outside the city.
Five key members of that ring were convicted and sent to federal penitentiaries, court records show.