Pimps tried to enroll experienced prostitutes into schools to recruit younger victims, indictment says
By Kristina Davis4:56 p.m.Dec. 11, 2014Updated6:24 p.m.
SAN DIEGO — A federal indictment unsealed Thursday accuses San Diego gang members of running a cross-country sex-trafficking ring that preyed on teenage girls from East County schools and used violence and drugs to coerce them into prostitution.
Twenty-two gang members and associates are charged with a racketeering conspiracy for their alleged roles in what was described as a lucrative operation, authorities announced Thursday. Most were arrested in a series of predawn raids.
About 100 victims, some as young as 12, were identified during the two-year investigation, officials said. Some girls were ensnared by promises of money and a lavish lifestyle, while others were forced through violence or threats to sell sex, according to U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. Vulnerable victims, such as runaways and girls from broken homes, were ideal candidates for recruitment, the court records state.
In one instance, according to the indictment, two defendants discussed on Facebook beating up a prostituted victim who got pregnant to get rid of the baby. Another victim had her jaw broken, the document states.
“These are girls who have their lives ahead of them, they look forward to this beautiful full life,” Duffy said.
“But those who exploit those dreams, they’re stealing the souls of these children and these young girls, and they’re doing so by crushing them with false promises, crushing them with physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual slavery — the kind of sexual slavery that leaves scars for a lifetime.”
The girls were recruited through social media, at parties and at various middle and high schools in the East County. On at least one occasion, Duffy said, a pimp tried to enroll an older, more experienced prostitute into a school to recruit younger victims.
The investigation, led by the Sheriff’s Department and dubbed “Operation Stolen Souls,” was kicked off by the rescue of a few sex-trafficking victims found attending an alternative school.
Investigators said school officials and parents helped by reporting red flags: girls coming to school with unexplained expensive items, frequent absences, bruising or other injuries, relationships with known gang members. At least one parent even reported seeing a daughter offering sex for money on a website, an official said.
Local school districts have collaborated with investigators on the emerging problem for several years, work that paid off with Thursday’s arrests.
“We worked with law enforcement on this investigation,” Grossmont Union High School District spokeswoman Catherine Martin said Thursday. “We helped identify victims.”
District officials began to train staff in recognizing signs of at-risk children and how to intervene in 2009, when San Diego County was identified by the FBI as a top location in the nation for sex trafficking, mostly by street gangs.
“It’s a national problem,” Martin said.
She said the district even produced a manual, with a Department of Education grant, that lays out specifics on sex trafficking and how schools can work with police.
“Everyone needs to get involved,” urged Joe Garcia, interim special agent in charge of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego. “It’s happening right in front of us, in plain sight.”
The indictment says the defendants are part of a relatively new gang called Tycoons, formed in 2008 by four members, which grew to include others from various San Diego street gangs. Duffy said the gang is comprised of three subsets but works together like “a family,” with each group performing supporting roles to the sex-trafficking operation. Lemon Grove and Spring Valley are considered their bases of operation, the indictment says.
The indictment says some members managed prostitutes, others recruited them, some controlled the girls through acts of violence while others distributed drugs and committed other crimes — from attempted murder to robberies. Some victims were trafficked as far away as Michigan, Kansas, Arizona, Nevada and Texas, officials said.
Many of the gang’s members also consider themselves rappers and use the music to promote the pimping lifestyle, recruit new members and gain status, authorities said.
This is the third time the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego has targeted gang-run sex-trafficking organizations with the racketeering law. Previous cases involved operations in Oceanside and North Park.
Thursday’s raids involved more than 150 law enforcement officers from state, local and federal agencies. Seven of the defendants were already in custody on unrelated charges. One of the 22 indicted remains at large.
Most of those arrested are in their 20s.