UC meet and greets (TRB Halloween party). ▣ UC dates (buyers vouching for you - PDX). 9th Annual Domestic Violence Symposium. In the latest batch of TRB-related arrests, defendants are accused of basically the same activity as the first group: reviewing Seattle-area escorts. They would meet at restaurants and bars to discuss brothels, prostitutes and how to and even continued to use aliases in person at League "meet-and-greets. However, a King County detective participated in online TRB.
News of the bust played perfectly into the growing narrative from both activists and officials that sex trafficking—the use of force, fraud, or coercion to trap people in prostitution—is rampant in America, a pernicious form of what Barack Obama described in as "modern slavery. On January 7, Washington officials unveiled a perfect storm of such horrors: Women lured from South Korea under false pretenses and "held against their will" at local brothels.
A website where deviant men promoted and reviewed these enslaved women. The reality—as evidenced by police reports, court documents, online records, and statements from those involved—is far less lurid and depraved. Instead of a story of stark abuse and exploitation, it's a story of immigration, economics, the pull of companionship and connection, the structures and dynamism that drive black markets, and a criminal-justice system all too eager to declare women victims of the choices they make.
The story is presented here in three parts. The first offers a glimpse at how this sexual economy actually operated, the motivations of its main actors, and how police came to "infiltrate" the scene. Part two explores how the government's war on prostitution—rebranded as a war on sex trafficking—brands innocent men as sexual predators and sets dangerous new standards of disrespect for free speech and free association rights.
And part three looks at how policies designed to get tough on pimps and traffickers wind up threatening the very women they're supposed to save. At a press conference the next day, they announced that 12 female victims from South Korea had been rescued, 12 "brothels" closed, and a major human-trafficking ring shut down. The team also seized three websites: Prosecutor Dan Satterberg described the situation as one of extreme coercion and criminality, calling the 12 Asian women recovered in the operation "true victims of human trafficking.
It was shocking, scandalous, horrifying. Yet almost none of it is true. While most publications were careful to pepper "police said" into articles, their headlines and language precluded any sense of impartiality. That article, syndicated widely, said Korean women were "shipped from city to city about every month and typically not allowed to leave their apartments except to go to the airport.
In early May, five months after the first arrests, six more men were added to the complaint against alleged League members. These new defendants included archetypes of the Seattle-Bellevue tech class, including an executive at Microsoft, an engineer for Boeing, and a director of software development for Amazon.
Local media reported that these men were part of a " large-scale sex trafficking operation " and offered headlines such as " Microsoft and Amazon Execs Busted for Promoting Sex Slavery. Yet almost none of it is true—and the little that is technically true is so lacking in context that it's utterly misleading.
Almost everything that follows was known by detectives prior to their January raids and press conference, because it comes directly from court documents that they filed to establish probable cause for each defendant's arrest. However, the picture that emerges from these documents bears little resemblance to the dramatic and dystopian tale that police publicly spun. This implies the women promoted on TRB had no control over their ads appearing there, did not want clients to review them, and generally did not want to be engaged in commercial sex.
On the contrary, the core of TRB's business model consisted of escorts posting advertisements for themselves. Countless Seattle-area sex workers who have advertised on the site have attested to this. As one, "Veronica," told the women's site BroadlyTRB "was really a wonderful thing that kept everyone safe. Girls would be in touch with each other. A lot of people used it as a reference system—have you seen this person and are they safe?
King County Detective Luke Hillman had been posting undercover on TRB for years—interacting with many defendants in this case—before any arrests were made. And not only were many of the women who advertised on TRB openly listed as "independent," police have in their possession hundreds of emails that show the women actively managing their businesses.
For instance, the Certificate for Determination of Probable Cause against Phillip Dehennis, who was charged with "promoting prostitution"—more on that particular charge later—highlighted a string of emails between him and sex worker "Sabreena. When Dehennis completes the review, he emails her again and asks her to check it for accuracy, to which Sabreena replies "thank you so much for the review!
So what about the two men, Durnal and Mueller, whom KIRO 7 called sex-trafficking ringleaders who "sold women all over the country? But even the case for that is flimsy. Despite initially labeling both men "human traffickers," police present no substantial evidence in charging documents that local K-Girls were captive or unwilling. By all accounts, these women flew to Seattle voluntarily and without chaperones, usually from other U.
The K-Girls were, in essence, independent contractors. The men paid the rent and utilities on these spaces and stocked them with furniture and supplies, such as mouthwash and condoms, but did not live there.
Visiting K-girls each got their own bedroom and private bathroom. Doesn't that make Mueller and Durnal "pimps"? Yes, in the sense that the definition of a pimp is anyone who helps manage business for a sex worker or makes money off of prostitution. But Mueller and Durnal don't conform to pimp stereotypes. The men—both prolific sex buyers themselves—weren't violent or abusive.
They didn't have sex with the women they booked, provide them with drugs, try to keep them dependent, or try to keep them from leaving in fact, their business model depended on women coming and going relatively quickly.
They provided a service and took a fee, leaving the K-Girls with whom they worked with a personal profit of hundreds of dollars per day. Of course, being paid doesn't, on its own, preclude being exploited. What about the claims that the K-Girls were forced to work 12 to 14 hours daily? The only evidence in police documents to support these statements is TRB advertisements that list escorts' appointment availability. Some ads did indeed indicate availability windows stretching 10 to 12 hours.
But being available during those hours doesn't mean the women were actually working for all or even most of them. Mueller allegedly told police that his escorts saw an average of five clients per day, with a typical session lasting one hour. It's similarly unclear on what basis police allege that K-Girls were trapped in the area or in their apartments.
Probable cause documents for Mueller and Durnal offer nothing to support this accusation. A case summary for Mueller states that "Donald's sex workers typically travel via airplane to work at his brothels. His sex employees pay their own travel expense to get to Seattle. Within the plans, the pair discuss how to get Ann to the U. Ann mentions that she will pay Donald to "Make appointments with customers. Statements made by League members in their private communications also fail to create an impression that these women were hapless prisoners.
For instance, after a session with K-Girl "Mari," one member reports that "she told me she's a total gym rat, spending about two hours a day in the gym. This girl can lift some weights! This interpretation is further supported by the fact that these women had internet-enabled phones, which they were able to use freely.Miranda Sings Seattle- Kory reading
One K-Girl who always took great pride in her nails told him she was saving up to open a nail salon and body-waxing spa back home. Yes, they frequently told customers they weren't sure how long they would stick around. But although this could be a sign someone is pulling the strings elsewhere, it could just as easily mean that they don't think it's the client's business, that it depends on how long the agency will let them, or—the reason they're most often reported to give—that it depends how business goes.
TRB reviews included in police documents further indicate that K-Girls had their own motivations for staying or going. A June review of "Ace K" says "she will be leaving the 29th… The weather is getting her down 'I'm an LA girl' so she said she will restrict her visits to the warmer months in the future.
She is slow but wants to stay in Bellevue because it's clean, she said. The few hundred they included in court documents from which these quotes are drawn are what they describe as "representative examples. Police documents also indicate that women who advertised on TRB, including K-Girls, set different prices, had different boundaries, and offered differing levels of sexual activity.
For League members, these were limits to be staunchly respected. A "Code of Conduct" states that individuals will be blacklisted if they don't use condoms, take a shower and use mouthwash at the start of each appointment, respect individual boundaries, and remember that no means no.
That seems rather gentlemanly—perhaps even feminist? But the key to painting League members as traffickers and abusers lies in framing all sex workers as victims. If you understand the K-Girls and others who advertised on TRB as individuals with choice and agency, the men who paid them for sex are no more abusers than you or I when we pay someone to watch our kids, listen to us talk about problems, or fix our cars.
An undercover detective first attended a TRB meet-and-greet—meeting both Donald Mueller and the site's proprieter, Sigurds Zitars—in Off and on for two years, Hillman would post lengthy and detailed descriptions of alleged sexual encounters with sex workers to TRB. These included the same sorts of statements defendants have been arrested for posting, such as pleas for others to visit a particular woman so she would stick around, info about the screening process for new clients, updates on when a new K-Girl arrived in town, and links to their ads on other websites, like Backpage.
Yoco "is the freight train of sexual energy. Her last day is August 23rd, RUN, don't walk, to see her. Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett said at a press conference that the investigation was "unprecedented in size and scope.
Soon after, Bellevue Detectives Tor Kraft and Shelby Shearer interviewed Mueller in an official capacity and he told them about his business. In the fall, Kraft would meet Durnal while undercover and befriend him; Durnal later complained that Mueller had talked to the cops in the spring and told them "everything.
In all of these encounters, most involving conversations with detectives posing as prostitution clients, the details of their operations remained the same.
And King County didn't just have their word to go on; detectives also had ample access to suspects' private web-forum and email communications, subpoenaed from internet service providers.
Plus they had the 12 women who had allegedly been victimized by defendants—women "held against their will" as "their sexual autonomy [was] stolen repeatedly," as Mylett put it at a press conference.
Surely, testimony to that effect from any of the victims would be enough to make human-trafficking charges stick?
But no such testimony exists. To its credit, King County didn't use prostitution charges or immigration threats to try and compel the cooperation of Korean sex workers. Prosecutors don't know what has become of the "rescued" women now. We are offering you advocacy or services if you want them; if you don't want them you may go. If they had wanted to testify, however? But none were interested. Their move to managing commercial-sex businesses had been recent, a natural extension of the relationships they made with sex workers and other clients.
Mueller said he started when a woman he patronized regularly, ViVi, asked him to become her booker; from there he became more involved, starting his own agency in late Durnal still maintained a full-time job as a professional photographer but had begun moonlighting in the sex business after dating a K-Girl himself. In February, they accepted plea deals, copping guilty to promoting prostitution in the second degree.
There was no media blast from King County about this development. While they're still awaiting final sentencing, the penalties Richey recommended were relatively modest: Mueller and Durnal might have gotten favorable sentencing recommendations in exchange for offering testimony against bigger prostitution players, for example. But there's no evidence that's the case so far.
Instead, it's likely that the lighter sentences and less severe charges reflect the true nature of these men's actions, which did advance or promote prostitution, but not necessarily at anyone's expense except perhaps the taxpayers', now that King County has gotten involved. For all the bluster about busting up a ring of international bad guys, the worst offenders in the case can only be said to have "provided a place" for consensual prostitution to take place.
Police and media reports were crafted to sound as if the sting took down a massive, coordinated criminal organization devoted to sexual exploitation.
The Truth About the Biggest U.S. Sex Trafficking Story of the Year - realestateforms.info
In fact, the "brothels" they busted were solo operations that worked more like talent or temp agencies, with willing workers showing up for short-term gigs brokered through the agency. The "sex trafficking website" they took down was a robust platform for independent sex-worker advertising. And the shadowy sexual exploiters of The League?
Just plain-old prostitution clients who occasionally liked to get together for beers. With Mueller and Durnal out of the picture, it's the sex buyers that prosecutors have been focusing on. But buying sex isn't the crime these defendants were charged with: Like Mueller and Durnal, each faces a felony promoting-prostitution charge. Unlike Mueller and Durnal, however, League members aren't accused of managing escort agencies, operating brothels, or having any direct hand in running a prostitution business.
The activity used to sustain their charges includes posting sex stories in online forums, private emailing with and about sex workers, and meeting for drinks at local bars. Part two of this series will explore The League in more depth. The most active reviewers were invited to become part of "The League," a group of men who communicated on a members-only website and held monthly meetups at local bars.
Beginning in Junethese meetups were monitored by KCSO, including one undercover detective who had been invited into the group after years of posing as a TRB user.
Members would soon find their "hobby" at the center of a national story in which they were cast as human traffickers by law enforcement and media. That's the only way the site—a marketing venue meets social-network that was highly valued by independent sex workers —becomes a "sex trafficking site," old-fashioned escort-agencies become "human trafficking organizations," and women clearly exhibiting agency in what they're doing become "prostituted persons" and "victims.
And it's how a group of men whose activity consists of nothing more than posting words online can find themselves legally liable for felony crimes and tried in the court of public-opinion for promoting "sexual slavery.
The first part looked at alleged leaders of the criminal enterprise and how tales of an organized, diabolical, cross-country ring couldn't be more wrong. We'll continue in that vein here, focusing on the men of The League.
Busted: How police brought down a tech-savvy prostitution network in Bellevue | The Seattle Times
The brothels are part of a "national pipeline that transports exploited women around the country for use in prostitution," he claimed.
The case summary against League members described them as "accomplices" who were "engaged in a sophisticated enterprise to promote prostitution" and "maintained constant communication centered on their obsession with sexual exploitation. International news agency Reuters opened an article on the case this way: They pay for sex, they're paying for a fantasy. While police had heard about potential "debt-bondage-type situations" happening, he says this was far from the case for all or even most of the Korean sex workers his department encountered.
It's "not the same for everybody—whatever brothel or whatever victim," says Richey. Posing as prostitution clients, the information they gleaned from these women was in keeping with what League members and agency-owners would later say: While K Girls did come to the area expressly to work at Asian brothels, the relationship was more one of independent contractor than indentured servitude. For that fee, the manager marketed the women online, screened new clients, scheduled appointments, fetched supplies such as condoms, and provided a discreet, upscale apartment from which they could live and work.
In some cases, agency managers were men—avid prostitution-clients who had gradually gotten pulled into the business side—who spent little time physically present at the places they ran. Other agencies were established by sex workers themselves, who would open spare rooms in their apartments to visiting K Girls.
None of the 12 women discovered during police raids chose to cooperate with the investigation, and police have no idea where they are now.
But advertisements and messages posted to sex-work forums indicate that at least some of them may have merely moved on or back to selling sex in Los Angeles—anothing fact undercutting their portrayal as helpless victims of human trafficking. No one disputes that League members did not conceive of themselves as traffickers. But countless communications between League members and sex workers that were reproduced in court documents suggest it's law enforcement and prosecutors who are being willfully oblivious.
To understand why the allegations against The League and its members are so novel, it's important to understand just what the group really was and how it worked. The League—or LOEG, as members wrote it, short for "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"—was essentially a social club and online discussion group, centered on talk about prostitution. At its core was a group of moderately well-off men who unabashedly enjoyed paying for sex and wanted a space to talk about their experiences and how to avoid law-enforcement detection without judgment or shame.
Granted, TRB posts do tend to describe semi-graphic sexual activity although not necessarily sex; some review providers of "full body sensual massages" who don't do "full service" appointments. And emails exchanged between sex workers and defendants do hint at prostitution. But people write all sorts of things online that aren't based in reality, and without having talked to sex workers seen by defendants, or witnessed any part of any of the sessions themselves, the cops have no way of knowing whether any illegal activity—or any IRL meetings at all—took place.
This is, of course, part of the evil genius of how King County is going after people who pay for sex. With the "promoting prostitution" charge, law enforcement needn't show that defendants actually engaged in pay-to-play sexual activity themselves. All they must show is that the men "advanced" the prostitution careers of others by saying positive things about them online. Of course, at many points throughout the overall investigation, King County deputies and cops from the Bellevue Police Department also posted graphic sexual reviews to TRB of real local sex-workers, messaged with other TRB members about them, and arranged appointments with them.
According to these agencies, whose officers met undercover for many prostitution appointments, undercover cops always ducked out of "dates" before any sexual activity could go down. But that still means that the exact same activity undercover cops routinely engaged in is, too, the only activity police allege of most defendants in charging documents. If these defendants harmed the people prosecutors describe as "exploited" and "prostituted" women through such activity, it would seem King County cops are guilty of doing the same, for years.
But in certifications for determination of probable cause against new defendants, authorities present no evidence that the women these men "promoted" were being exploited, other than the mere fact that the women were engaging in sex work at all. At least a couple of the "prostituted women" mentioned in charging documents are prominent sex-worker rights activists. In other charging documents, defendants are found suspect for emailing with Donald Mueller, whom charging documents describe as a "convicted human trafficker" and "the primary pimp and trafficker for Korean nationals" as part of a "criminal organization named 'Seventh Heaven of Asia.