The Ramsey County Attorney on Wednesday announced charges against five people who allegedly ran a sex trafficking ring out of St. Paul.
Prosecutors allege that over a two-year period, the group victimized at least 10 girls and women, selling them through hundreds of ads on adult websites to customers across Minnesota. This is the latest attempt to crack down on what investigators say is a growing problem of selling girls and women online.
Two brothers, Otis and Antonio Washington of St. Paul, face multiple charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy involving an operation authorities say they ran out of the basement of their uncle's house on the east side of St. Paul. Prosecutors also charged two of their uncles, Robert and Calvin Washington, along with Elizabeth Alexander, the mother of Antonio Washington's children.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi described the case as an "evil conspiracy" that preyed on vulnerable girls and women for financial gain.
"The investigation began six months ago in October of 2012 because a concerned grandmother contacted authorities about her 15-year-old granddaughter," Choi said. "To that grandmother and to the parents of these young women and girls, I want you to know we will do everything in our power to help these children and to hold the defendants accountable for their crimes."
Choi said he was saddened for the victims that it took so long to crack the case. Authorities believe the ring had been active for nearly two years, and they've identified 10 victims, but the investigation is ongoing and there could be more.
St. Paul Police worked with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to untangle the web of online ads, email addresses, pre-paid credit cards and cell phone records that led to the arrest of the five suspects on Monday.
John Bendemer, director of the Gerald Vick Human Trafficking Task Force that led the investigation, said extra resources from the MN Girls are Not for Sale campaign helped them go after the bigger pattern of conspiracy.
"These defendants have been known to us for many years," Bendemer said. "It was something that investigators in the St. Paul Police Department and other law enforcement agencies across the Twin Cities had dealt with them on this type of crime as well as many other crimes that they were committing."
Bandemer and Choi praised the victims for being willing to speak with investigators, and said the ones they've talked with are getting help.
Both men say the problem of sex trafficking is growing in Minnesota. The Ramsey County Attorney's office charged 12 people with trafficking or promoting prostitution in 2012, mostly involving children. Choi said that's double or triple the number of cases in a typical year.
A bill currently before the Legislature would spend $13.2 million to fund safe shelter and supportive services for child prostitution victims as well as training for law enforcement. The Legislature hasn't approved money for the bill yet.