San Diego, CA — Two men have been arrested on suspicion of serving as pimps and other charges in connection with an internet-based commercial sex enterprise in San Diego, authorities said Tuesday.
The arrests of San Diego residents Dale Vinzant, 68, and Christian Koalani, 66, were the result of a year-long investigation by the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force, San Diego police Capt. Brian Ahearn said in a news release.
The pair are accused of being involved in a “criminal organization that enabled persons engaged in prostitution acts and their customers to negotiate the exchange of sex for money at the click of a button and under the cloak of a fee-based, members only website,” Ahearn said.
The online prostitution ring is believed to be the first of its kind ever uncovered in San Diego, according to police.
“This is groundbreaking,” Ahearn told reporters during an afternoon briefing.
Vinzant allegedly owned and operated a website called San Diego Adult Service Provider, which police described as an “internet-based meeting place where people engaged in the illicit sex trade and their customers could link up, negotiate a sex transaction, and, once the act took place, allowed the sex purchasers to write and post a review.”
This website enabled Koalani, the owner of American Escort Company, to post, advertise and ultimately profit from the sex acts provided by the young women he recruited and directed, according to Ahearn.
It was unclear how many might have been victimized, though investigators believe some 50,000 people — both clients and victims — had used the website over a period of years, Ahearn said.
Koalani, a Pacific Beach resident, is the author of “Story of An American Escort,” a novel based on his experiences in the underground sex trade, according to police. When he met Vinzant about 10 years ago, Koalani was running a pimping scheme via his Facebook page and proposed moving it to the latter man’s website for their mutual benefit, the captain alleged.
The suspects set up the illicit business under a veil of secrecy in an attempt “to wall off law enforcement,” only allowing potential customers access following a thorough vetting process, Ahearn alleged.
“It was very covert,” he said. “Not a lot of people knew about it — only those, really, who were members.”
Once on the website, however, clients and the women they were seeking to hire often were frank in their negotiations, according to Ahearn, who said investigators “saw language that was very specific, language that was very graphic.”
Authorities were alerted to the prostitution operation by a woman in her 20s who provided information about it after being contacted by police on an unrelated matter, Ahearn said. He declined to disclose details on the nature of her connection to San Diego Adult Service Provider.
The website has been shut down, with anyone trying to access it now directed to another one that provides information about human trafficking- related crimes and how to recognize and report them.
Police believe the online prostitution service boasted about 900 members at the time of the suspects’ arrests two weeks ago on suspicion of pimping, pandering, conspiracy, solicitation of prostitution and money laundering, Ahearn said.
To access the illegal services, members paid fees of roughly $15 a month or $100 per year, according to police.
With insight gained from the unique case, local authorities “will be actively involved in pursuing other similar types of business models that might be doing similar things,” Ahearn said.
“Both Vinzant and Koalani … lured vulnerable women into engaging in acts of prostitution with offers of drugs and money in exchange for their offering themselves to clients as part of a large-scale sex for money enterprise,” Ahearn said.
The San Diego Police Department secured the necessary arrest and search warrants in the case through the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, in collaboration with the California State Department of Justice, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI.
The service of the warrants resulted not only in the arrests of both men but also the collection of evidence such as computers, other electronic media and assets tied to the business, according to Ahearn.
Koalani was arrested June 2 at his Pacific Beach residence and booked into jail on suspicion of pimping, pandering and conspiracy charges. His bail was set at $500,000.
Vinzant was arrested June 3 in the Mission Bay area. He was booked into jail on suspicion of pimping, pandering, solicitation of prostitution and money laundering charges. His bail was set at $150,000.
The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office agreed with the arrest charges against both men, and has filed the charges, according to Ahearn.
Koalani was due in court Tuesday for a readiness conference and again Thursday for a preliminary hearing.
Vinzant’s next court dates are a readiness conference on July 22 and a preliminary hearing on Aug. 11.
The San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force was formed in January 2015 to “disrupt and dismantle human trafficking and child exploitation organizations through a comprehensive, collaborative and regional law enforcement and prosecution response,” according to Ahearn.
***Updated at 4:25 p.m. Pacific Time; Originally posted at 12:31 p.m. Pacific Time, June 14; 2016***
The sex industry is very lucrative, but is closely linked to human trafficking.
To reduce the demand for human trafficking, legislation should shift the criminal burden onto those who purchase sexual services, rather than those who sell it, argues Linnéa Engstrom.
Linnéa Engstrom is a Swedish Green party MEP and a member of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament.
The overlapping of trafficking in human beings with migration, the arrival of refugees and smuggling put people vulnerable to human trafficking in serious danger. It also jeopardizes progress we have already made.
Trafficking in women for sexual exploitation is a form of violence against women and it must be approached and prosecuted appropriately. As victims of crime, people already involved in the sex industry need better rights protection. The victims must be protected and afforded full support and retribution. A reduction of the demand for trafficking in human beings and sexual services can be achieved through legislation shifting the criminal burden onto those who purchase sexual services of trafficked persons, and away from those who sell it.
As a member of the Swedish Greens, I emphasize data confirming the deterrent effect that the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services has had in Sweden, my native country and constituency, as a member of the European Parliament. The Swedish model, criminalizing those who buy sexual services, has an obvious and profound normative effect. It has true potential to change social attitudes in order to reduce the demand for the services of victims of human trafficking. Those who claim otherwise often state that it complicates the lives of those working in the sex industry. This may well be the case in the short term, as some of the prostitution moves underground. But the gains in the long run are easy to detect.
There is significantly less prostitution in Sweden than in the neighboring countries. In fact, hardly any country in the world has fewer problems with human trafficking than Sweden, according to the Swedish police. Four years after the introduction of a sex-purchase law in Norway, based upon the Swedish model, the Norwegian government chose to evaluate its effects in 2014. The results are striking and positive, showing among other things that the demand for prostitutes has been significantly reduced.
Trafficking in human beings is of course a complex issue and there are many problems yet to be tackled. The sex industry is extremely lucrative, which is why there will always be powerful actors wanting to support it. Despite the prostitution ban, for instance, the number of convictions in Sweden has remained low. Only a handful of pimps are each year sentenced to prison. Most customers get away with fines, although their names are entered in the police registers. A recent report on trafficking in human beings in Europe signals under-reporting of the crime and indicates a poor record of identification of the victims of trafficking of all genders. The main problem seems to be the lack of political will.
But with the legislation in place in Sweden, our police officers have learnt to understand that prostitution is not a normal business. The attitude has spread to the population at large. There is no doubt that a ban on the purchase of sexual services brings about fundamental, albeit slow, change in societal attitudes.
A report to be voted in the European Parliament on Thursday at the Strasbourg plenary calls on the European Commission to further fully examine links between demand for sexual services and trafficking in human beings. I fully support this as a good start. But it is not enough. We have to move towards punishing the purchasers of sex in order to achieve a normative effect. Otherwise we can forget about tackling the crime of trafficking in human beings.
A regulated sex trade can have a positive impact on reducing the effects of human trafficking.
Legalizing and regulating prostitution can contribute to the fight against people trafficking, but more measures are needed, according to a new study. EurActiv Germany reports.
The estimated number of cases is high and one thing is clear: in the last year, the number of people made victims of people trafficking increased in the European Union. Forced labor and prostitution are the main driving forces of the trade. A European Commission study, using Eurostat data from 2012, shows that 96% of trafficked people are sexually exploited and the vast majority are female.
The idea of decriminalizing prostitution has long been mooted as a possible measure to combat the illegal sex trade. The legal status of prostitution across Europe varies and the European Parliament adopted a non-binding resolution on the issue in February 2014. Croatia remains one of the only EU member states where prostitution is completely illegal. In Germany and Netherlands it is legal and regulated.
NATO’s role in the Aegean will be to deal a blow to refugee traffickers, Greece’s Alternate Foreign Minister for European Affairs, Nikos Xydakis, told EurActiv on Thursday (18 February). EurActiv Greece reports.
Whether legalizing and regulating prostitution could act as a model for countries wishing to tackle people trafficking has been the subject of a new study carried out by researchers from Lancaster University and the University of Duisburg-Essen. The study used Amsterdam and Dortmund as its two case studies. Dutch and German authorities allow prostitution to be operated as a business, but it is subjected to a high level of monitoring and regulation.
“In Dortmund, brothels must be registered at the trade office and usually the operator needs a permit,” said Birgit Apitzsch, a co-author of the study. The police also make regular checks to ensure that trafficking is not still happening.
In Amsterdam, brothel owners are responsible for ensuring that the women working on their premises do so voluntarily. Self-employed sex workers must register with the chamber of commerce. “Local authorities and the police in both cities can rely on a trusting relationship with prostitutes and they are always available if needed for counselling,” said another of the study’s co-authors, Markus Tünte. “This is important in order to identify victims of trafficking and to help them,” he added.
Experts believe that certain forms of prostitution, such as that found on the street or involving underage people, are particularly affected by traffickers. The study concluded that regulating the trade has contributed to a drop-off in the activities of people traffickers and recommended further measures to continue the fight.
Brothels should be federally regulated and counselling centers should be better funded, urged the study’s authors.
Germany also wants to push through Justice Minister Heiko Maas’ bill against sexual exploitation, which would see clients of forced-prostitution punished with up to five years in prison.
The European Parliament is currently working on a resolution intended to combat the illegal sex trade as well. A few days ago, the institute’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) called for the fight against illegal trafficking to be prioritized, given its implications on the ongoing refugee crisis as well.
ENVI member Miroslav Mikolášik pointed out that although the vast majority of people affected by the trade are women and girls, men can also be victims of sexual exploitation.
In a default judgment, U.S. District Court Judge Fernando Olguin issued his ruling May 2 against Analiza Moitinho de Almeida and her husband, Goncalo Moitinho de Almeida, a Rolling Hills Estates couple who operated the L’Amande French Bakery at Rolling Hills Plaza, along with a second site in Beverly Hills, court documents showed.
Last year, the couple abruptly shut down the bakeries, fired their employees, sold a $2.375 million apartment complex they owned in Long Beach and attempted to transfer the deed to their $1.4 million home on Aurora Drive in Rolling Hills Estates to a relative.
Attorneys for the employees alleged in court documents that the couple was trying to liquidate their assets after the employees filed the lawsuit against them, alleging they were treated like slaves under a federal program that legally brings foreign workers to the United States.
In court documents filed last year, the former workers claimed the Almeidas brought them to the United States from the Philippines on E-2 visas in 2012, promising them jobs as skilled and supervisory employees at their bakeries.
But when they arrived, the workers were forced to work 15-hour days, cleaning and painting at the Long Beach building and doing laundry and yard work at the couple’s house, where they slept on the floor.
The lawsuit alleged employees received $3 an hour working for months without a day off and were told they had to repay the Almeidas $11,000 each for their airfare and visas or they would be deported.
Last year, the state Labor Commissioner’s Office investigated the couple’s practices and ordered them to pay $250,000 in overtime wages to their workers.
By all accounts, they were popular among their customers.
After the employees’ lawsuit was filed, Analiza Moitinho de Almeida called the allegations “blatant lies,” and posted photos of her employees on her closed business’ windows. The photos, she said, depicted employees enjoying life in Southern California, sightseeing in Hollywood, Universal Studios and Disneyland, and sunbathing at the beach.
Analiza Moitinho de Almeida said she treated her employees like family, “shouldering many of their financial needs, including educational, medical, dental, disaster relief, clothing and housing needs, for decades.” She claimed to have bought them laptops and tablets, paid their rent and utilities, and offered no-interest loans.
“By closing the bakeries, my husband and I will be losing not only our investment, but our only source of income,” she wrote last year. “Although it was a little jewel in Torrance, it was not financially viable anymore. This is why we sold the building in Long Beach. We had to find some funding from somewhere for the never-ending fees that will still come our way. Surely, the courts will agree that we have the right to find ways to defend ourselves.”
The court did not agree, issuing a default judgment when the couple did not show up for oral arguments on May 2.
According to the judge’s ruling, the Moitinho de Almeidas must pay:
• More than $3.7 million in compensatory damages for human trafficking and $1.25 million for violating the Fair Employment and Housing Act.
• More than $3.7 million in punitive damages for human trafficking and $1.25 million for FEHA violations.
• More than $1 million in statutory damages for wage and hour law violations;
• $200,000 for statutory damages for violation of California’s whistleblower and retaliation law.
• More than $1.2 million for damages under the RICO Act.
• More than $2.8 million in attorneys’ fees.
In addition, the judge voided the couple’s transfer of their home.
Analiza Moitinho de Almeida did not respond to questions posed to her in an email about the case. Instead, she sent a link to a justiceforlamandebakery.com, which contains many posts critical of her employees and others who were expected to testify against her. The last post was in December.
Human trafficking: It’s in our communities, and BART aims to be part of the solution
The girl was a 13-year-old cheerleader in Oakland, the 38-year-old man called her his girlfriend, and he bought her ice cream between the sex acts she did with strangers for $40 apiece.
BART Police Lt. Ed Alvarez helped get the conviction that sent that man to prison, and he’s a vocal advocate to raise awareness of human trafficking.
The BART Police Department is part of a regional effort to fight trafficking, recognizing that public transportation, as part of our communities, sees the same types of activities that occur in those communities. The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the FBI’s top 13 hot spots in the nation for child sex trafficking, according to a 2009 FBI report.
TRAINING AND RAISING AWARENESS
BART has a two-pronged approach: training patrol officers to understand the cues and techniques in human trafficking, and also reminding the riding public of resources available, and the need to help with “see something, say something” awareness.
“Whatever’s going on in a community is going on in its transit system,” BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey said, citing his emphasis on a community-oriented policing and problem-solving philosophy (COPPS). “It’s incumbent upon everyone in the transit system to be vigilant in the protection of our daughters and sisters from these predators.”
The problem became vivid in a recent ride-along and walk-along with two officers who patrol areas that are key zones for trafficking, a broad category of crime that often manifests locally as the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Far from the myth of “victimless” crimes, vunlnerable victims are lured by older adults who direct their activities which, due to the youths not having cars, often involve BART and other public transportation to move victims around frequently to avoid detection.
WALKING AND WATCHING
Officer Russell Medeiros (below) and Officer Jimmy Chung (above) patrol primarily in BART’s Zone 1 and Zone 4, which include downtown Oakland and downtown San Francisco. They and other BART Police officers go through training to be alert to the dynamics of trafficking.
Driving down International Boulevard in Oakland, the officers pointed out things they watch for on their patrols: a young woman walking along the street without purpose, loitering, or flagging down cars, who may have no ID if contacted, because the people who control her activities keep her ID. It is often not the crude stereotype of a woman in spike heels and mini-skirt; it may be a middle-schooler in a sweatshirt with her school logo.
“These girls are brainwashed that this person is going to take care of them,” Medeiros said. (While males are also victims of trafficking, locally officers encounter females more often as the victims.) “They’re providing them food, shelter, and also keeping their identification and money. They’re convinced this person is looking out for them, and they’ll take the abuse and the threats.”
With newer girls, the traffickers will stay close by to keep an eye on “their property,” so officers look for eye contact or hand signals between a girl walking the street and an older man sitting at a nearby bus stop. “It all goes back to being aware and understanding of what could be a pimping and pandering situation,” Chung said. “You have to identify the problem and know all the ways to approach it.”
Chief Rainey noted that under the state law BART sought for prohibition orders, the law that lets serious and repeat offenders be barred from BART, the largest single category of prohibition orders issued was for domestic violence. In domestic violence calls, officers are trained to separate the parties and use a line of questioning that does not blame or accuse the victimized party. “What appears to be a boyfriend and girlfriend arguing, might not be,” Chung said.
The officers said public transportation offers a way for traffickers to blend in with a large group of people, as opposed to walking side-by-side with a young victim, where they would more easily draw the attention of police.
EDUCATION IS KEY
Police training is one key area of focus.
“This is a really important issue because a lot of times you’ll get that call, a runaway call, a DV (domestic call), and you just sense that something is not right,” BART Training Sgt. Carolyn Perea said. “Officers need to know how to ask the right questions.”
In the case Alvarez broke, he won the young victim’s trust, and she told him she was afraid for her life. “She did it out of fear that he was going to kill her,” he wrote in documentation of the case at the time. The man ruled over multiple young girls by threats and violence and sometimes took them on BART to their “work,” before dropping them back off at their schools in the afternoon.
Mary Kuhn is a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, which works in coordination with other agencies and is planning to locate a teen safe house in Alameda or Contra Costa County this year or next. The location is not identified publicly to protect the teens.
“This is a big issue that has to be addressed regionally, and a huge transportation system like BART has to be part of the solution,” Kuhn said.
Human trafficking is a growing local and national issue and the state law covering it (Penal Code Section 236-237) offers officers many lines of pursuit, Alvarez said, with enhancements for longer sentences when things like a weapon are involved.
With major events such as the Super Bowl hosted locally last January, or sports playoffs or championship series, additional victims are brought in through local airports, and BART serves both SFO and Oakland airports, the officers said. They said traffickers also rotate in victims from other areas of California such as Sacramento or Stockton, who might arrive via public transportation to end-of-line stations.
“The one conviction I did get, that made me feel good,” Medeiros said. He was working a bicycle patrol at the time, stopped a girl loitering on the street flagging down cars, and it turned out her trafficker was directly across the street and he ended up being arrested and convicted.
So, the issue is not hopeless. Every BART rider can help by being aware of suspicious activity and advising BART Police at 877.679.7000 of what they have seen. They can also use the BART Watch app to report possible criminal activity.
The poster below lists the national hotline to call if a person is a victim or wants to report a situation, and some tips on what to look for. It can be found also in all BART stations, helping to spread awareness there, too.
By MELISSA JORDAN
BART Senior Web Producer Bay Area Rapid Transit