SEATTLE – King County officials, Bellevue police, and the FBI announced Thursday they rescued 12 women, arrested 14 men, and shut down multiple brothels as part of a major human trafficking bust which was promoted through the Internet and social media. Police say the women were brought to America and forced into prostitution.
Sheriff John Urquhart says two websites -- thereviewboard.net and kgirldelights.com -- were seized and shut down. The "K" in kgirldelights.com stands for Korean. Police say the websites were used to rate, discuss, and promote the prostitution of women.
"Information shared on the site was used to exploit the foreign-born women, mostly from Korea, who were also being shuttled from one city to the next on a monthly basis. Organizers of the network encouraged sex buyers to consistently visit the most desired prostituted persons advertised so that they would be kept in the Seattle area longer," said the sheriff's office in a statement.
Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett said the arrests happened Tuesday and Wednesday in Bellevue and both King and Pierce counties. Eleven of those arrested were either part of a group called "The League," or were those who ran thereviewboard.net.
Urquhart said kgirldelights.com was run by "The League," made up of a group of businessmen. The women were forced into prostitution to pay debts, often being held against their will. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said some of the women were forced to work every day, up to 14 hours, servicing up to 10 Johns per day.
Although the arrests were made in Western Washington, men from at least 15 states were involved.
The sheriff's office said its investigation began when a trafficking victim came forward. She said she was brought to America from South Korea and forced into prostitution to pay off a family debt.
Mylett said his department became involved when it was learned one of the brothels set up by "The League" was located in a high-end downtown Bellevue apartment complex. Police say the brothel owner was one of the most active users of thereviewboard.net.
The suspects had no criminal records, Urquhart said. They would meet regularly, in public, to discuss their operation. Undercover detectives infiltrated "The League," leading to the arrests.
A total of 12 brothels were shut down in the sting. Three brothel operators, including one woman, were arrested.
Thirteen people are being charged with second degree promoting prostitution, which is a Class C felony. Satterberg said they face a maximum of five years in prison.
"These charges reveal a part of our community that most people do not want to believe exists," said Satterberg. "Because they had money, these men gained access to sexually abuse these vulnerable young women, then put their energies toward a campaign to encourage many more men to do the same. This is what human trafficking looks like."
In a bizarre twist, prostitutes held a protest in the lobby of the sheriff's office while he and other law enforcement officials were briefing news reporters at a press conference.
The prostitutes showed up to protest the closing of the website, thereviewboard.net, which they claim allowed them to assess clients and determine who is safe and who is not.
"Sites like this allow us to screen clients and advertise without standing on the street corner," said Maggie McNeill, who says she is a prostitute.
Inside the press conference, when asked about the prostitutes in the lobby, the sheriff emphasized they are still breaking the law and the website was promoting the exploitation of women.
"If anyone thinks this operation we took down is a victimless crime, they're delusional," said the sheriff.