Following last week's shutdown of Seattle sex-work forum The Review Board (TRB), law enforcement agents from the FBI, the King County Sheriff's Office, the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, and the Bellevue Police Department held a press conference at the county courthouse in Seattle. I watched along from the Reason office thanks to a live feed from KIRO 7 News, but there's unfortunately no saved recording of it online—so, alas, we're unable to count for sure how many times officials contradicted themselves. But suffice to say, there was more than a whiff of fabulism in their account of South Korean women smuggled into the country, held in "sexual servitude," and trafficked via sites such as TRB and KGirlsDelights.com.
(Update: the whole press conference has been made available by King County and is viewable at the bottom of this post.)
Here's what we know with reasonable certainty: On January 5, FBI agents and local police served 126 search warrants and court orders, culminating in the arrest of 14 individuals, the "rescue" of 12 women, and the shutdown of 12 enterprises police described as "brothels." Those arrested include three alleged brothel owners as well as 11 members of an enterprise that called itself "The League." Thus far, law enforcement has seized $77,000, three vehicles, and one firearm from these individuals, though they expect that "additional moneys and properties will be seized."
The "rescued" South Korean sex workers were currently being detained at an undisclosed location. Police admitted that they had only interviewed one or a few of the women at the time of the press conference, but felt confident stating that all 12 were "true victims of human trafficking," part of a web of Asian women "abused, raped, and murdered" after immigrating here illegally or coming legally but overstaying visas. Officials painted a convoluted and lurid scenario involving sneaking over the Canadian border and debt bondage, by which these women somehow came to work at the brothels where they were held—"more or less agai-" said Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett, then paused, correcting his equivocation, "well, no, held against their will"—and "their sexual autonomy was stolen from them repeatedly," all at the encouragement of this mysterious League.
But pressed by local media about the connection between the human smugglers, the brothels, TheReview Board.net, and The League, King County Sheriff John Urquhart clarified that it was "probably just the women." There was no coordinated action between the smugglers and debt-bondage lords and the people of The Review Board or The League. It's unclear whether there was coordinated action between these individuals and the brothel owners.
The best I can make out from law-enforcement statements and documents is that we have 1) South Korean women who were in the country illegally, perhaps helped by human-smugglers to whom they now owed a large debt; 2) these women started working in the sex trade, perhaps totally willingly or perhaps totally by force but most likely a combination of coercion and lack of options; and 3) at some point, they began advertising (or were advertised) on TRB website, which was owned by a man named Sigurd Zitars, or "Tahoe Ted."
Tahoe Ted is allegedly one of the founding members of The League, a sort of gentleman's club for prolific sex buyers. Seattle-area League members sometimes met in person, and also communicated on TRB and a site they put together themselves, kgirlsdelights.com. The purpose of the group was largely to discuss different aspects of being a "hobbyist"—the preferred term of many sex-industry clients—and to review local sex workers, especially Asian sex workers. A list of guidelines for The League members stressed the importance of good hygiene, wearing condoms, and respecting sex workers' boundaries. The League members may have also pooled resources to found one or several of the brothels that police shut down.
The brothels were all located in luxury apartments in Bellevue, just across the lake from Seattle. According to ads provided by law enforcement, clients payed around $300 per hour or $240 per half-hour for liasions with the women at these locations. One-third of this money allegedly went to brothel owners; it's unclear if the women kept the rest of the money they made or were expected to turn it over to another third party, perhaps the people involved in their smuggling or those operating the prostitution network that sent some of them around the country for guest sex stints in other cities.
If the Korean women in question were victims of sex trafficking, it seems to have been perpetrated by some combination of the individuals who helped them enter or stay in the country illegally and those who ran these sex-trade networks. The men of The League merely enjoyed the company of these women, and postings procured by police indicate that they do not suspect the women of being sex slaves; at most they mention that some of the "new girls" seem nervous.
The Review Board, meanwhile, was only tangentially involved as a forum for advertisement and discussion of these women, along with all sorts of independent sex workers in the area. Law enforcement said they had personal information on all the sex workers and hobbyists registered with TRB, they said, but were not anticipating charges at this time.
Of the 14 people who have been arrested, only two—alleged brothel owners Michael Durnal and Donald Mueller—were booked on human trafficking charges. Durnal and Mueller were also booked for money laundering. The rest of those arrested—including alleged brothel owner Jabong "Crystal" Kim, Tahoe Ted, and 10 other alleged members of The League—were booked on charges of promoting prostitution in the second degree, a class C felony.
As for websites like The Review Board, "there are still umpteen websites out there that we haven't gotten to yet," said Sheriff Urquhart, promising that they would eventually go after these sites, too.
Many independent sex workers showed up to last week's press conference and took to Twitter to complain about the shutdown of TRB, which they say enabled them to meet and screen clients more easily than they would on the streets or other venues, as well as share information with one another about bad or dangerous clients. Shutting down the site because a small portion of the women advertising there may have been trafficked is both unfair and unlikely to make anyone safer, they insisted. But officials scoffed at these assertions, stating that prostitution was still illegal in King County and, as such, everyone involved with the site was participating in crime.
While law enforcement certainly views The Review Board, and other sites like it, as nothing more than a conduit for illegal activity, most of what went on there could be characteried as speech: men trading reviews and comments with one another about women engaged in both prostitution and legal forms of sex work; women trading tips about how other women could protect themselves, etc. There are certainly potential First Amendment concerns at play here.
In a recent case involving classified-ad site Backpage.com—another venue that facilitates sex work and is accused by law enforcement of perpetuating sex trafficking—7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner ruled against Illinois Sheriff Tom Dart, who had been pressuring credit card companies to stop doing business with Backpage. By "using the power of his office to threaten legal sanctions against the credit-card companies for facilitating future speech," wrote Posner, the sheriff was "violating the First Amendment unless there is no constitutionally protected speech in the ads on Backpage's website—and no one is claiming that." However, Backpage publishes classified ads in many categories, making it less easy to portray as merely a venue for illegal activity and non-protected speech.
The 12 South Korean women in law-enforcement custody will be offered an unspecified form of "help," officials said at the press conference. They may be able to avoid deportation by applying for special victims' visas if they were subject to human trafficking.