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SEATTLE (AP) — Police in the Seattle area said Thursday they freed a dozen women who were forced into prostitution, arrested 14 people and shut down two websites this week as part of a sex-trafficking investigation.
King County Sheriff John Urquhart said most or all of the exploited women had been brought to the U.S. from South Korea, where some had been forced into bondage to pay off debts their families owed to criminal organizations. Eleven men who were arrested were part of an online network that included websites where customers rated the women and posted details to help facilitate the prostitution, he said. The men face felony charges of promoting prostitution, as do two other men and one woman identified by police as brothel managers.
"These women are true victims — make no mistake about it," Urquhart told a news conference.
Authorities seized a website called The Review Board, which they said had about 20,000 members around the country. The website on Thursday featured the insignia of the agencies involved in the investigation — the sheriff's office, Bellevue Police Department, King County Prosecutor's Office and FBI — along with the message, "This website has been seized pursuant to a Promoting Prostitution investigation."
A similar, password-protected website was also shut down.
The seizure of The Review Board drew objections from a group of self-identified sex workers who protested outside the sheriff's office Thursday, saying that it was a service that helped protect those voluntarily involved in the trade. Sex workers could vet potential clients by seeing whom they had reviewed, then contacting those prostitutes to ask about them, some said.
In a written statement, the local chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, an organization that fights the stigma of sex work, said the website also enhanced the safety of sex workers by allowing them to work without managers, or pimps.
But Urquhart and Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett said there was nothing safe about the website. The women involved in the case had been shipped from city to city about every month and typically were not allowed to leave their apartments except to go to the airport, they said. The trafficking had connections to about 15 states, and the women serviced between two and 10 clients a day.
Police said they had no interest in arresting the women, but could assist them in obtaining visas reserved for victims of human trafficking.
The Bellevue Police Department's part of the investigation began when a resident of a high-end apartment building reported that a neighbor appeared to be involved in prostitution.
Police identified the man who had leased the apartment as Donald Mueller, 58. In a probable cause statement, a Bellevue police detective wrote that Mueller confessed to him during an interview at a Starbucks coffee shop. Mueller said he leased apartments for the prostitutes to use, collected $100 of their hourly $300 fee, transported them to the airport and advertised their services, the detective wrote. He made about $1,500 a day, the statement said.
In an email with an undercover detective, Mueller also explained how he got into the business, the charging document said: "His former business of growing marijuana became significantly less fruitful because of the legal marijuana dispensaries" after licensed recreational pot shops opened in the state last year.
No attorney had entered an appearance in court on behalf of Mueller or Michael Wayne Durnal, who was accused of operating under a similar business model.
The King County sheriff's office said 10 other men arrested were part of a group called "the league." They shared specific information about prostitution in the area and strategized to promote the market for Korean women during occasional meetings at local pubs, investigators said. One undercover detective infiltrated the group, Urquhart said.
In charging documents, that detective described the meetings he attended: "Many times the discussions were so graphic that patrons sitting at tables next to us would get up and leave or move to another table."
The defendants discussed that the women involved were trafficked and probably not voluntarily engaging in prostitution, Urquhart said.
He also said law enforcement did not yet know how many customers had paid for sex with women they met on the websites, but that after executing 126 search warrants and court orders, investigators had lots of information about them — especially because the website operators had vetted customers.
"We're not going to arrest them, but they're all going to be in the case files," he told reporters. "And the case file is going to be subject to public disclosure, if you're interested."
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