Last Minnesota sex trafficking branch member sentenced 12 years

Concluding investigations of an international sex trafficking organization’s Minnesota branch that started in 2016, the final defendant was sentenced to 12 years in Washington County District Court Nov. 8. 

According to a joint Ramsey County and Washington County press release — both worked on the case — a judge ordered Sophia Wang Navas spend 12 years in prison for her role in the California-based sex trafficking ring with Minnesota ties, including operations in Oakdale and Maplewood. Navas was also ordered to pay $8,500.

“This brings to a close a significant joint effort between the Ramsey and Washington County Attorney’s offices to curtail the trafficking of human beings in our region,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. “The victims in this case were especially vulnerable, as they were trapped in a foreign country where they barely spoke the language and sold for sex.”

Chinese women were regularly being flown into the United States for the purpose of sex trafficking, commonly regarded as a modern form of slavery.

Upon arrival, the passports of the women, who didn’t speak English, were taken by leaders of the sex trafficking enterprise. 

“We have all heard, and seen, that sex trafficking is prevalent in the metropolitan area. It has been too long overlooked,” said Washington County Attorney Pete Orput in a July 31 statement.

Three other defendants were previously sentenced in the case. 

The first to plead guilty was Fangyao Wu. She was convicted of racketeering and sentenced Feb. 9 to a stayed sentence of 20 years and 36 months of probation. 

Also in February, Hong Jing, after being convicted of racketeering and aiding and abetting second degree sex trafficking, was sentenced to more than eight years in prison. Dong Zhou Jiang was sentenced in August, pleading guilty to racketeering and aiding and abetting second degree sex trafficking, receiving over four years in prison. 

 

Breaking open the sex trade

In 2016, while in the process of shutting down prostitution operations at Peony Massage in Blaine and at Terra Point Apartments in St. Paul, police met Jiang, who was later to be charged as one of the four leaders of the prostitution organization.

In February of 2017, the Minneapolis Police Department found out that eight women had just arrived in the Twin Cities for the purpose of prostitution. Two of the women were discovered inside an apartment in St. Louis Park, which was fitted with a Wi-Fi security camera for the prostitution organizers to monitor the women.

Based on advertisements on Backpage.com, police found another woman at the Best Western, 970 Helena Ave. N, in Oakdale. Police surveillance revealed several men entering the woman’s hotel room and leaving about 15 minutes later.

“The goal of the [police surveillance] operation was to verify that commercial sex acts were occurring and to identify a potential trafficker associated with the exploitation of the female,” court documents said.

Police stopped one of the men as he was driving away from the hotel, and he allegedly admitted to paying a woman for sex in the hotel. However, after the man was interviewed, the woman left the hotel, unseen by police.

The next day, Backpage.com advertisements pointed police to the Emerald Inn, located at 2025 County Road D, in Maplewood. This time police asked hotel management to evict the woman, who happened to be the same individual who was at the Best Western the day before. 

After being evicted, she was picked up by someone driving a vehicle with California license plates and was dropped off at Live Inn Suites, 285 Century Ave. N., in Maplewood, where police found her. She was brought to a shelter and connected to other services.

Police also caught up with the driver of the vehicle, who ended up being Jiang. He was arrested in Woodbury and admitted he picked the woman up from the airport for the purposes of prostitution.

 

A concerned resident stumbles in

At the same time the undercover operation was happening in Oakdale, another undercover operation based on Backpage.com advertisements occurred at a townhome at 7815 Hemingway Ave. in Cottage Grove.

Surveillance of the property was underway when a resident contacted police about her suspicion that sex trafficking was occurring in the house. She had gone to visit an old friend who she thought still lived at the address when she was ushered inside by someone she thought might be her friend’s caretaker, but when the “caretaker” brought her to sit on a bed, she suspected the woman was a prostitute and left.

The next day officers from Cottage Grove, Woodbury and Oakdale entered the building and discovered three women, including the woman police recovered at the Live Inn Suites in Maplewood, who had been transferred to a shelter earlier that same day.

Police later discovered similar advertisements in California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. 

Six Chinese women who had been trafficked were recovered from the organization.

 

–Solomon Gustavo can be reached at sgustavo@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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