Suffolk County authorities arrested a Queens woman and her driver for allegedly forcing women into prostitution in Nassau and Suffolk counties in a move that enforced a 2007 New York State anti-human trafficking law for the first time on Long Island.
Jin Hua Cui, 44, of Flushing, pleaded not guilty last week to charges of sex trafficking, promoting prostitution and conspiracy.
She allegedly coerced at least eight Korean women into prostitution at massage parlors that act as fronts for brothels in Hicksville and Huntington Station by using threats of violence after they applied for jobs as nail salon attendants. The women were then advertised on Craigslist, Suffolk County prosecutors said.
Investigators executed a search warrant at her 35th Avenue home, where they seized $20,000 in cash, business records, passports and boxes of condoms. The johns paid $60 or $80, sometimes more, for sex, while Cui took that money and the victims were left with whatever tip the customer paid, prosecutors said.
Cui’s co-defendant, 53-year-old Sangyel Kuen of Flushing, who drove the victims from Queens to Long Island in a Lexus, pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution at his arraignment June 22. He told the court that Cui was engaging in sex trafficking.
Suffolk County police officers opened the four-month investigation when they began to suspect that women at the Huntington Station massage parlor were possible human trafficking victims. Authorities also raided the massage parlors and seized the Lexus.
Now, the question is: Will the victims talk? “These types of cases are difficult to investigate and prosecute primarily because the victims are hesitant to cooperate,” Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said at a news conference Tuesday.
Cui, who is Chinese, would threaten the victims by telling them that if they did not work as prostitutes, she would have them killed by the Chinese mafia, prosecutors said. They could not confirm if she actually had any connection to the gang.
Police said she also used threats of embarrassing the victims by telling their families and community that they work as prostitutes. “The embarrassment factor back in Flushing is huge,” said Detective Lt. Edward Reilly, commander of Suffolk County police kidnap investigations team.
Prosecutors suggested this may only be the tip of the iceberg. “There are other girls that we have yet to speak with,” said Assistant District Attorney Jessica Spencer of the special investigations bureau, who is handling the case.
Some of the victims, who are in their 30s and 40s—none of whom speak English—had been involved in the alleged trafficking ring for weeks, while others were victimized for months.
Authorities would not comment on the victims’ status following their alleged captors’ arrest, but standard procedure is for trafficking victims to be brought to group homes for those in similar situations. They may become eligible for special visas, allowing them to stay in the country after the case is closed.
A spokesman for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which is also involved in the investigation, was not immediately available for comment.
“New York State’s human trafficking law, enacted in 2007, was designed to fight the scourge of modern day slavery and enable law enforcement and service providers to help victims who are virtually hiding in plain sight,” said Sean. M. Byrne, acting commissioner of the state Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). “What may at first appear to be a routine prostitution case could be something far different and far more sinister.”
Cui is being held at Suffolk County jail on $10,000 bail. She is due back in Suffolk County court July 28.
Nassau County prosecutors are currently investigating a sex trafficking case but have yet to bring charges against a suspect. The office has criticized the state law because there are only three drugs—marijuana, methadone and GHB, better known as the date-rape drug—that a sex trafficker can be charged with using to impair a victim’s judgment.
The law excludes crack-cocaine, crystal meth and heroin—the three drugs experts say pimps often feed to prostitutes. Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice’s office has said alcohol should be included as well.
There had been 20 arrests statewide for sex trafficking since 2008, resulting in seven convictions with 11 cases still pending as of April 15, according to DCJS.
Queens County prosecutors have laid claim to the first sex trafficking conviction under the New York law, sentencing the trafficker to 25 years in prison in January. In that case, 32-year-old David Brown “bought” a 19-year-old woman and pimped her out on Craigslist.
Those cases are in addition to a Suffolk County sex trafficking case pending in federal court. Brother and sister bar owners and their bar manager were arrested in August 2009 after being accused of forcing Latin American women, some as young as 17, to perform sex acts on patrons for money.
They threatened to report the victims to immigration authorities if they refused. Those who still resisted were assaulted and raped, prosecutors say.