A Chicago woman who admits she was a call-girl is denying any larger role in an international sex trafficking ring that saw hundreds of women shipped from Thailand and sold "like cattle."
Thoucharin Ruttanamongkongul, 35, of Chicago, was convicted last month in St. Paul, Minnesota, following a federal investigation code-named Operation Bangkok Dark Nights.
Ruttanamongkongul, aka Noiy, was one of five people found guilty by a federal jury and among 39 originally swept up in the sex trafficking investigation. There were eight other defendants from Illinois charged in the original case. The ring had operated for more than a decade, according to investigators, staffing sex houses in Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and numerous other U.S. cities.
Investigators said Thai women were imported to work long hours having sex with numerous men each day to pay off "bondage debts" they owed their traffickers for help coming to America. They said the defendants fraudulently obtain visas for hundreds of women and lied to them about the size of their debts, often totaling more than $40,000 to $60,000.
U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald in Minnesota said foreign-born women from Thailand were preyed-upon by commercial sex recruiters and "sold like cattle." MacDonald called this one of the largest "modern-day slavery" cases ever. The women were advertised on websites that cater to prostitution customers.
In a new post-conviction motion for acquittal, Ruttanamongkongul's attorney admits "there was evidence that Ms. Ruttanamongkongul was engaged in prostitution but any inference she was part of a conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking by force, threats of force, fraud or coercion does not rise above mere speculation and conjecture. The government did not, and cannot show more."
Such motions are not unusual in multiple-defendant cases and normally face slim odds of success.
Much of the evidence consisted of emails, text messages and other electronic communication between the defendants, their sex workers and customers-including a cell phone seized by U.S. agents in Ruttanamongkongul's 32nd floor apartment at 6033 N. Sheridan Rd. in Chicago.
Convicted with her were Michael Morris, aka "Uncle Bill," 65, of Seal Beach, Calif.; Pawinee Unpradit, aka Fon, 46, of Dallas; Saowapha Thinram, aka Nancy or Kung, 44, of Hutto, Texas; and Waralee Wanless, aka Wan, 39, of the Colony, Texas. Their attorneys claimed that the women employees were all willful participants.
Morris ran several houses of prostitution in California and worked closely with Unpradit, who prosecutors said had a bondage debt of her own and funneled women to work at Morris' houses.
"There are hundreds if not thousands of victims of this organization" said Assistant United States Attorney Melinda Williams.
Like Unpradit, Thinram also began as a victim of the organization before going on to opening her own business in Austin, Texas, after she paid off her bondage debt, according to charges. Her husband, Gregory Kimmy, has since pleaded guilty for his role in helping Thinram run the house.
The Chicago woman and her four co-defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, conspiracy to use transportation for prostitution, conspiracy to launder money and conspiracy to use a "communication facility" - such as phone or internet - to promote prostitution. Morris was also charged with sex trafficking by "use of force, threats of force, fraud and coercion."
"Not one person, not one woman, not one child should be bought and sold in the United States of America" said Tracey Cormier, a special agent in charge at U.S. Homeland Security Investigations.
Federal agents said the organization relied on co-conspirators to recruit victims in Thailand, commit visa fraud and arrange travel to the U.S., where traffickers would hold bondage debts over victims who would be shuttled between various "houses of prostitution" throughout the country, including Chicago and elsewhere in the Midwest.
"It was an organization that brought poor and vulnerable women from Thailand to the United States where they were forced to engage in sexual acts every day, all day" said U.S. Attorney MacDonald.
The women were frequently put up in high-end apartment buildings or lesser-quality "spas" where prosecutors say they were made to engage in "all-day, everyday commercial sex" and could use just 60 percent of their earnings to pay down their debts with the rest going to "house bosses" who used the funds to cover costs of business like renting apartments and paying to advertise the women's services online.
Investigators have recovered $1.5 million in cash and $15 million in judgments secured through plea agreements, according to federal authorities. "This organization dealt in cold hard cash" said Todd Strom, IRS Criminal Investigative Division. "Millions upon millions of dollars of cash."
Chicago woman claims she was railroaded in 'Bangkok Dark Nights'