Kansas City, Mo. – Western Union wire services carried more than a third of a million dollars from Kansas City to China in 2005 and 2006. Wire transfers are common transactions, but these came from an uncommon source: massage parlors.
It was an involved and intelligently engineered operation in Johnson County Kansas. But exactly what it was and what it wasn't sparks disagreement.
"There were just very few johns that were prosecuted, and there were very few if any of the other massage parlor owners that were successfully prosecuted," says Defender Melanie Morgan.
" In that world, the sex trafficking world, the word is undoubtedly out on the street that if you try to open up the massage parlors in this metro, the law enforcement authorities - federal, state and local -- are going to come after you," counters Acting U.S. Attorney Matt Whitworth.
The chief case took in 48 year old Ling Xu. The native of China has been to court for running prostitution before, but this is her first time in the Midwest. Along with three others, she pled guilty to the charges -- charges that, in the end, did not include forced labor trafficking.
Forced labor trafficking, which a former U.S. Attorney once called a modern-day form of slavery, is the pinnacle of these kinds of crimes. The Immigration and Customs Service called this a case of Human Trafficking, but that charge did not hold up to the test.
"It had a flavor of human trafficking," says Prosecutor Cynthia Cordes of the case. "But not to the level we were able to charge it with offenses under the TVPA, the Trafficking in Victims Protection Act. Instead, they were charged and pled to inducing and coercing women into prostitution."
Whitworth believed he had evidence that the women who worked for Xu's operation were pressured into doing the work they did. "They would be locked into the business at night -- from the outside. They would be locked inside the building. They couldn't leave. And to me," he says, "that was a clear element of coercion."
Madam Xu pled guilty to coercion, even though the sentencing judge thought many of the women stayed for the money. Xu's appointed defender, Melanie Morgan, explained it this way outside the courthouse last week. "It was a happy ending really for everyone involved. The johns got what they wanted. They were looking for sexual gratification and they got it. The women who were providing the services got what they wanted, because they had come here willingly. They wanted to make some extra money, tax free, and they got that money. And my client was able to profit on that opportunity." Profited by four-hundred and fifty thousand dollars, much of which was wired to China.
Somewhere between three-hundred fifty and four-hundred fifty thousand dollars went to China, wired there by Xu, never having been taxed in this country. Sixty thousand dollars in cash were seized by the FBI in massage parlor raids, but the tax man will not get his due.
Defender Morgan complains that Xu won't qualify for rehabilitation programs in prison, where she's been sentenced to serve an 8 year, 2 month term. Lacking in English speaking skills, she won't benefit.