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Federal jury convicts 5 on charges they operated huge sex trafficking ring

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U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald speaks on Dec. 12, 2018.
U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Erica MacDonald announces the convictions of five people in a sex trafficking case on Wednesday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

A federal jury in St. Paul has returned guilty verdicts against the final five defendants in a major sex trafficking operation. Prosecutors say the national ring victimized hundreds of women from Thailand. 

The five defendants, from California, Texas and Illinois, were convicted on a range of counts including conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, money laundering and sex trafficking by use of force, fraud and coercion. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino said the case started with a tip to law enforcement about a possible trafficking victim who was flying to the Twin Cities from Phoenix.

"The case agent and I got that lead in early 2014. She went to the airport. She conducted surveillance. She identified who that woman was. There was a runner in Minnesota who was helping the organization who picked her up," Provinzino said. The runner brought the victim to a Walmart to buy condoms and then to an apartment, where she was sold for sex.

Minnesota U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald said law enforcement soon realized that the woman who flew to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that day was one of hundreds of people that a large criminal enterprise coerced into coming to the United States from Thailand with the false promise of a better life. 

"This organization was one of the largest and most sophisticated transnational sex trafficking organizations operating in the United States. And it did so for more than a decade or so. It existed here in Minnesota and in cities across the country," MacDonald said.

Traffickers used phony bank accounts, created fictitious biographies and set up fraudulent marriages to assist the victims in getting visas. The women were forced to have sex with as many as 10 men a day, then told to pay back debts of $40,000 to 60,000, prosecutors said.  

The case took two years to prosecute and involved agencies ranging from the St. Paul Police Department to the IRS. It grew to include 36 defendants, 31 of whom pleaded guilty. The others took their chance in court.  

On Wednesday, a federal jury in St. Paul convicted Michael Morris, 65, of Seal Beach, Calif., Pawinee Unpradit, 46, and Waralee Wanless, 39, both from the Dallas area, Saowapha Thinram, 44, of suburban Austin, Texas, and Thoucharin Ruttanamongkongul, 35, from Chicago.  Efforts to reach their attorneys were not successful. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams said prosecutors and law enforcement had to marshal vast resources. 

"It's like a mafia case. It's all of the difficulties of the hardest human trafficking case you've ever done with a seemingly bottomless supply of victims. And then it's all the hallmarks of the hardest fraud case and money laundering case and white-collar case that you've ever done," Williams said.

Investigators have recovered $1.5 million in cash. According to trial testimony, one money launderer alone sent $40 million to Thailand.

The Thai Community Development Center, based in Los Angeles, assists about 20 of the victims with immigration and legal issues, so they can try to establish a normal life. 

The group's attorney Panida Rzonca says she wants to hear from others who were not called as witnesses in the case.

"This is a topic that's very difficult to talk about in the Thai community as well as the community at large," Rzonca said. "Many people feel very ashamed. They don't want to come forward. But I would encourage Thai people who know of victims or are in contact with people back in Thailand to come forward because we can still help them."

Rzonca is helping some of the victims write impact statements. Sentencing hearings for the 36 defendants are expected to begin early next year.