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Saturday, May 22, 2004

Prostitute smuggling suspected

Prostitute smuggling suspected

Prostitute smuggling suspected

5-22-04

By Russ Rizzo Staff Writer
News & Record




GREENSBORO -- Twenty- one Mexican immigrants arrested in Greensboro this week are suspected of participating in a widespread prostitution ring.

Investigators said it could be one of the largest prostitute-smuggling cases the state has uncovered.

The 14 women and seven men were arrested Monday after a private security guard called 911 to report scantily-clad women exchanging money with men in the parking lot of a Home Depot on South Elm-Eugene Street about 5 a.m. Federal immigration agents took them to Jail Central in Charlotte after police learned they were part of a federal prostitution investigation, according to Greensboro police.

They are charged with immigration violations and will be held until the U.S. Attorney's Office decides whether to charge them criminally, said Sue Brown, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

An agent investigating the case said he is trying to figure out if the women in the group were forced into prostitution.

"What we're trying to figure out is, is this an organized ring, or is it just people coming here to make money?" said Ken Burkhardt, an agent with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's office in Charlotte. "It could go on both ends of the spectrum: It could be something really big or it could be people just making lots of money. If it's an organized ring forcing them to prostitute, it would be really big."

Officials did not have addresses for the inmates. Their ages range from 16 to 33, according to jail records, but a witness said most of the women looked younger than 18.

Jim Gunn, the Home Depot security guard who tipped off police, said he reported to work at 4:30 a.m. Monday after employees told him that prostitutes had been gathered in the lot before the store opened for several weeks, usually on Monday mornings.

When he arrived, Gunn said, he saw about a dozen cars parked in the front of the lot.

In each car, a man sat in the driver's seat with three to four female passengers, Gunn said. The women -- mostly teenagers in mini-skirts and high-heel shoes -- handed money to the drivers. Then, one by one, the drivers approached a man in a white button-up shirt and blue jeans who stood in front of a white van. They each handed the man in jeans the money they had collected.

"The man driving the big van appeared to be the big pimp, the guy in charge, the guy with the money," said Gunn, a former VICE/narcotics detective in High Point.

The women then got into the van, Gunn said.

Gunn said the scene looked like a prostitution ring. "It looked to be very large-scale," he said.

By the time Greensboro police arrived, about eight cars had left, Gunn said.

Officers ran names of the remaining people into a national database that confirmed Gunn's suspicion: The group was a target in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation, said Capt. Rick Ball, who heads Greensboro's VICE/narcotics unit.

Ball said federal agents told him that the city was a stopping point on the group's way to Charlotte from New York and that the group did not operate in Greensboro. The Home Depot is just south of where Interstates 40 and 85 merge.

"This was a meeting place," Ball said. "It was a convenient location for them to meet up for transportation."

Ball said he did not know that Home Depot employees had seen similar activity in the parking lot for three to four weeks.

Sue Ellen Pierce, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Charlotte, said she was unaware of any past prostitution-smuggling cases involving more than 20 people in the state's western district.

She said she could not comment on any ongoing investigation.

Lynn Klauer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Greensboro, said the Charlotte investigation is the largest prostitution-smuggling case she has heard of in the state.

Anita McLeod, who oversees federal inmates in Charlotte's Jail Central, recalled one other time, two years ago, when immigration agents held people accused of smuggling prostitutes into the country.

"It wasn't nearly as big as this," McLeod said.

But in California, investigations like the one uncovered this week are becoming common, said Kevin Jeffery, deputy special agent-in-charge for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles.

Last month, a federal grand jury indicted four people suspected of smuggling undocumented Mexican women into California and forcing them to work as prostitutes.

"It's a much bigger problem than most people realize," Jeffrey said. "The folks that are doing this are very ruthless. These women are very fearful. ... It's slavery."

In Greensboro, detectives are investigating one business and one house they suspect are being used as brothels similar to the one discovered in Los Angeles, Ball said.

"These girls have this image that they're going to come here and be able to send money home and build themselves a life, and they're basically locked up in a hellhole," Ball said. "It's a very nasty, difficult situation, and it's very difficult to uncover."

Gunn said he is used to seeing prostitutes roam the area around Home Depot early in the morning. But normally they are older than the ones he saw Monday, and they aren't herded into a white van by a man in blue jeans, he said.

"It made me wonder, 'Where's their parent?' " Gunn said. "It just looked like those girls were being exploited."




Contact Russ Rizzo at 373-7021 or rrizzo@news-record.com

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