Federal authorities said Wednesday they've indicted 17 people in connection with an international sex trafficking ring that brought hundreds of Thai women to the United States for prostitution.
"The victims, who were called flowers by the criminal organization, were essentially held prisoner in the United States," said U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger. "The victims were forced to have sex with strangers for many hours every day, even when the men were abusive."
Luger said "Thai gangsters" who ran the operation threatened the families of the women left behind in southeast Asia, in order to keep them under control even in the U.S.
"The victims in this case lived as modern day slaves," Luger said during a press conference in Minneapolis.
The women were typically brought to Los Angeles and routed to cities around the country by air.
The investigation included investigators from the Department of Homeland Security and the Internal Revenue Service, as well as St. Paul police, the Anoka County Sheriff's Office, and authorities in Illinois and elsewhere.
"There is a lot more work to be done," said Mike Anton with the Cook County Sheriff's Office in Chicago.
The alleged traffickers include 12 Thai nationals and five from the U.S. Eleven of the 17 were arrested on Tuesday in Minnesota, California, Illinois, Georgia and Hawaii. Another defendant, the alleged boss of the operation, has been arrested in Belgium. Four are believed to still be at large.
The indictments listed charges for two in Minnesota: John Zbracki, 59, of Lakeville was charged on five counts, including conspiracy to commit sex trafficking and conspiracy to engage in money laundering. Supapon Sonprasit, 31, of St. Paul was charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud.
Authorities said they also intended to pursue the men who paid for sex from the victims of the ring. "Men who purchased sex from these types of organizations can expect to be visited by state authorities," said Luger.
Luger said a number of women who have been held by this ring have come forward, and that Homeland Security is hoping to find more. He said there were "opportunities under our immigration laws" for the victims of sex trafficking if they reach out to federal authorities.
Alex Khu, head of investigations for Homeland Security in Minnesota, said investigators have set up a hotline for victims to call, at 612-843-8801.