Former UW student, others sentenced in sex ring involving hundreds of women
Zhaofeng “Brandon” Zhang was the kind of new arrival to Seattle who seemed to have everything going for him.
At 18, Zhang landed in the United States from China and enrolled in the University of Washington to study computer science. He obtained permanent legal residency and was on track toward a life in the United States.
By 20, Zhang’s American dream had vanished. The young man had been busted for assisting a now-notorious Seattle madam, Fang “Cindy” Wang, in operating a prostitution ring thought to have involved hundreds of women.
Wang, 29, and five others – including Zhang, now 23 – were charged in May after a years-long investigation into the ring, which operated residential brothels out of apartments around Seattle and the rest of Washington. Wang, a Queens, New York, resident with Seattle ties, was described as the ringleader and has been sentenced to 2½ years in prison.
Appearing Thursday in U.S. District Court at Seattle, Zhang described the sex trafficking ring as one of many operating in the region. While Wang’s ring largely involved Chinese women, Zhang told U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly similar brothel circuits were staffed by women from South Korea and India, as well as the United States.
Zilly sentenced Zhang to 21 months in federal prison, the second-heaviest term handed down as part of the investigation. For his part, Zhang apologized for posting advertisements and shuttling women between the brothels.
“I’m not blaming anybody except myself,” Zhang said. “What I did was really shameful.”
Zhang will likely be deported to China, which may prove particularly problematic for him. Zhang joined the U.S. Army while under investigation, and his attorney expressed concerns regarding China’s enthusiasm for that decision.
As prosecutors tell it, Zhang was a mid-level player in the prostitution ring. Wang stood at the center.
The ring’s business was staffing and maintaining residential brothels, a method of prostitution that has received increased scrutiny in recent years.
Operators recruit women – often internationally, and sometimes disingenuously – to live in apartments rented to provide a space for liaisons. In recent years, such brothels have been discovered inside high-end apartment complexes in Eastside suburbs. A 2013 federal prosecution targeted a group running bogus massage parlors out of luxury apartments in Bellevue and Kirkland.
The brothels were also central to “The Review Board,” a prostitute-ratings site shuttered in January 2016 after a large sting operation. The board had been well-known to police for more than a decade prior to that bust, which law enforcement leaders argued was necessary in part to stop the exploitation of foreign-born women.
Wang’s ring followed a well-established pattern. Women were recruited abroad or inside the United States, often through the WeChat messaging app. Couriers like Zhang would retrieve them at Sea-Tac International Airport and deliver them to the brothels. Some women also performed “outcall” services for sex buyers at hotels.
Investigators contend Wang’s ring formed in October 2013 and ran until an FBI-led organized crime unit intervened in May. Most of the advertising was done on Backpage.com, though Zhang said interest in the notorious site waned in the ring’s final years.
Women involved in the ring testified that Wang recruited them to Seattle to perform “massage work.” While some knew Wang meant prostitution, others apparently believed they would be performing legitimate massage.
The women paid Wang and her confederates portions of their earnings. Assistant U.S. Attorney Catherine Crisham noted that the women had few if any connections in Seattle. Many also lacked legal status in the United States and were entirely reliant on Wang’s crew for their daily needs.
“Many of the women stated that they felt isolated and vulnerable, living in unfamiliar apartment complexes where they did not know anyone, did not speak the language, and were reliant upon Wang and her co-conspirators for food and transportation,” Crisham said.
“Although some of the women told law enforcement that they knew when they agreed to work for Wang that they would be engaging in prostitution, many others stated that the experience had been emotionally traumatic for them, and that they had only worked as prostitutes because they felt that they had no other options for making money,” the prosecutor continued.
Wang herself previously worked as a prostitute, an experience that included “horrific sexual and physical abuse,” according to defense attorney Stephan Illa. Though her attorney, Wang denied leading the ring.
The ring operated in apartments or hotels located in Bellevue, Kent, Kirkland, Lynnwood, Olympia, Lacey, Puyallup, Renton, Tukwila, Seattle and Federal Way. Other locations where the ring operated include Eastern Washington cities such as Richland, Kennewick, Wenatchee and Spokane.
Yongguang Wu, 28, of Seattle and Steven Thompson, 59, of Renton, were each sentenced to eight months in prison for their roles in the ring. Yunzhong Chen, 45, and Yaoan He, 33, of Seattle, were each sentenced to one year in prison. All of the defendants pleaded guilty to prostitution-related offenses.
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