A veterinarian in Baldwin, Wis., has pleaded guilty to helping run an international sex trafficking ring at a hotel in Woodbury.
Brian Kersten, 61, pleaded guilty to a charge of sex trafficking and labor trafficking in Washingon County District Court this afternoon, as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. He's expected to be sentenced to more than four years in prison in March.
It's yet another instance in which an international sex trafficking ring has come to light in the Twin Cities. Federal authorities last week charged more than a dozen people in a conspiracy to bring Thai women to multiple U.S. states, including Minnesota, to work as prostitutes obliged to pay for their transporation, food and shelter with the proceeds of commercial sex.
It's a practice U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger called "modern day slavery" last week.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput says the crime is even more widespread than federal authorities suggested in last week's indictment. Orput said investigators working with his prosecutors have combed through 50,000 online sex ads this year, and they're finding local instances on a practically daily basis.
He said they've already rescued nearly a half dozen young women from sex traffickers.
"It's gotten to the point where I can call and order a pizza and get out my phone and order a young girl to be my slave for a certain amount of time, and I'll bet she beats the pizza to my door," Orput said in an interview after today's plea hearing. "It's that ubiquitous."
The Woodbury case started when a hotel clerk at the Extended Stay hotel flagged down a passing police officer, who reported a woman had checked in with an older man, that she spoke little English and signed into the register using Chinese characters.
Kersten said during a plea hearing before judge B. William Ekstrum that he was a customer of a Chinese prostitute, and the two later became business partners: He picked up a woman at the Minneapolis St. Paul International airport, took her to obtain a mobile phone and a local phone number, then got groceries and dropped her off at the hotel.
Woodbury police and the Washington County Human Trafficking Coalition set up surveillance on the hotel and linked the woman to a Backpage.com online advertisement, offering erotic massage. They tracked the ad through an email to another woman, named Shixin Zhang, who prosecutors said had been charged in a prostitution bust in Massachusetts in 2014.
In an email after Wednesday's court hearing, Shixin denied trafficking the woman and said she was only trying to help her. She said the woman in Kersten's case was an adult, was fully aware of what was going on, paid for her own hotel and kept the money she obtained. Zhang called the allegations "a big lie."
The complaint in the case says investigators also tracked Kersten and found that he'd been to the Twin Cities international airport nearly once a week in August, and that investigators found that he'd transferred more than $35,000 to China dating back to May.
"There is no doubt in my mind that as we sit here today, something very similar to this is happening in the Twin Cities metro," said Washington County prosecutor Imran Ali, "and not just in Minneapolis and St. Paul."
East metro authorities have even established a Washington County Human Trafficking Coalition to try and look harder for instances of human trafficking taking place out of sight, driven by online ads.
"We're busy. Every single day we're busy," Ali said.
Orput said authorities are trying to make hospitality operators more aware of the signs, and even combing through old cases, looking for indications that past crimes may have only scratched the surface of a larger conspiracy. He also said its not just a matter of foreign nationals doing illicit business and moving on unseen.
"We all have to own that this is going on," Orput said. "There are kids in our community that are being trafficked. There are people that want to buy sex with a kid living in my community ... I don't want to live with people that have that attraction to kids. I don't want them in my county."
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