Wooden butterflies decorate the fence posts of the Royal Spa, one of seven alleged brothels where authorities say immigrant women from Korea and China worked. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

The Korean woman hemmed and hawed about whether to apply.

She knew there was a job opening in Rockford, a city of 150,000 about 80 miles northwest of Chicago, but her tourist visa barred her from getting a job. Still, back in Korea, her family of modest means struggled with health problems.

The least she could do was check it out, her friend suggested. On Feb. 26, she did.

The next day, she was hauled off to jail following a raid on an alleged prostitution ring.

What happened, advocates say, was that the business she had walked into turned out to be a Korean spa that ran a back-door brothel, and she was made an unwilling participant. That made her a victim of “human trafficking,” which federal law defines as sexual or labor exploitation “through force, fraud or coercion.”

Lured with false promises of jobs and a better living, many also fall prey to traffickers in the Chicago metropolitan area, authorities say. Most are women and girls, and many cases involve immigrants whose passports and other legal documents are taken away from them. And they are all forced to live in servitude until they escape, pay off a debt or are found.

“A lot of the cases that we see with human trafficking involve foreign nationals being brought in –¦ for prostitution purposes,” said Peter Fahey, group supervisor of the human trafficking unit of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Others say that, while cases of sexual exploitation tend to grab the most attention, that isn’t necessarily the most common form of trafficking. And, to be “trafficked,” victims do not have to be transported anywhere, as it’s often misinterpreted.

“Trafficking is actually a misnomer because it has nothing to do with movement. It is slavery. It is the combination of work and the lack of will, the lack of freedom to be able to leave,” said Elissa Steglich, managing attorney for the Midwest Immigrant and Human Rights Center, a division of Heartland Alliance, the only Illinois agency that receives federal grants to combat human trafficking.

And trafficking is known to take on many forms of coercion—from chains, death threats and physical enclosures to locked doors and never-ending debts.

But it’s difficult to get a handle on the scope of the problem, experts say. In many cases, the victims don’t come forward. Some are too scared to talk, having come from countries with corrupt governments they don’t trust.

But there are some clues. Heartland, which is working on a study to estimate the prevalence of trafficking in Chicago, has about 20 cases on its plate right now, Steglich said. Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement say they get nearly 50 trafficking tips each year.

Worldwide, the practice of human trafficking, often referred to as modern-day slavery, is estimated to affect 27 million people, according to Kevin Bales, a professor at Roehampton University in London and author of “Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.” That’s twice the number of people taken out of Africa during the transatlantic slave trade, a figure estimated to be roughly 12 million.

Last year, the U.S. State Department estimated that, of the 600,000 to 800,000 people trafficked globally each year, 14,500 to 17,500 end up in the United States. And it generated roughly $9.5 billion in profits worldwide in 2003, making it one of the top three revenue sources for organized crime, according to the department’s 2004 Trafficking In Persons Report.

When cases do surface, it’s often difficult to get victims to cooperate, and investigators face a hard time making a case strong enough for prosecutors to pursue, said Terry M. Kinney, an assistant U.S. attorney who secured Illinois’ first and only known conviction of a trafficker. That 2000 conviction preceded the passage of a federal trafficking law later that year.

But no such law is currently on the state books, preventing some crimes from being pursued. Advocates are finding their hopes in an anti-trafficking bill winding its way through the Illinois General Assembly. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has also announced the creation of the Illinois Rescue and Restore Coalition, which kicks off in June, to combat trafficking by increasing the awareness of the crime in the state and connecting victims with services.

Miriam Torrado, director of Heartland’s Violence Recovery Services, said the state’s new efforts will hold traffickers accountable for their crimes. “It really sends a message out to those perpetrators that it’s not to be tolerated,” she said.

Michael F. Iasparro, an assitant U.S. attorney, said 13 people have been indicted for money laundering and racketeering involving a chain of alleged brothels in Rockford. Human trafficking charges could be added if the evidence supports that, he added. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

The Chicago Reporter pieced together the Korean woman’s story based on court documents and a series of interviews with prosecutors, law enforcement agents and Heartland staff. What emerged was a story about a woman who stumbled into a web of underground prostitution that had operated with impunity for years in Rockford.

Court documents show that women, mostly immigrants from China and Korea, lived in the spas, several of which were located in storefronts. In the case of the Korean woman, Steglich said, she was prevented from leaving the spa, though it is unclear how she was held captive.

“When you go for your first day on the job, you’re not thinking, ‘Can I leave?'” Steglich said. “The expectation is, ‘Oh, can you leave at the first instant?’ But she was approaching it as any other job where you assume that it’s going to be a job. And I think we all make those same assumptions and we don’t ask the questions that aren’t usual.”

On Feb. 27, the Korean woman’s second day held captive, authorities raided the spa—one of seven in Rockford purported to be running underground brothels. Four women were arrested on prostitution and pandering charges. Another seven were turned over to immigration officials pending deportation.

The raid was the culmination of a 15-month investigation by the FBI, Rockford police, Homeland Security Department, U.S. Attorney’s Office, U.S. Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service.

According to court documents, a confidential source tipped authorities that the seven spas were all used as fronts for prostitution. When a customer arrived, they paid what was called “front money”—$40 for a half hour and $60 for an hour—for a body shower, during which their pockets were checked for identification, to make sure they weren’t police. During the shower, a price was negotiated for additional services, typically sexual. It averaged $60 for manual stimulation, $80 for oral stimulation and $120 to $140 for sexual intercourse.

Each spa had up to four prostitutes, serving a combined total of up to 40 customers a day and earning $90,000 to $100,000 a month. The owners and managers allegedly split the profits 50-50 with the women, who were managed by former prostitutes, called “mamasan.”

When the spas were inspected by Rockford police, the women usually escaped through the back door or hid in “safe rooms,” built into the interior of the spas to hide the women, cash and condoms.

In April 2004, an undercover FBI agent approached Kenneth Lee, 39, who co-operated at least one Rockford spa, as a person interested in opening a spa. During the recorded conversations, Lee told the agent that he knew where to get prostitutes “fresh off the boat” from Korea or China through San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Lee invested $152,000 building two spas in Rockford and spent $18,000 a month to advertise in phone books and newspapers. Lee spent roughly $9,000 a month to advertise in the Chicago Sun-Times alone, he told the agent.

On March 31, Lee pleaded not guilty to money laundering and racketeering charges at the federal court in Rockford.

Court documents also show that Rockford police and the FBI conducted surveillance at the spas and observed that the visitors were all men from different states. Employees, aside from the managers and owners, never left.

From April 2004 until February 2005, Rockford police pulled trash from the various shops and found birth control pill packages and condoms stuffed in soda cans.

Following the February raid, the Korean woman was interviewed by a Heartland staff member, who was brought in to determine whether trafficking was at play. After three weeks in jail, she was released to a housing facility Heartland had arranged for her.

The Reporter was unable to reach any of the 13 defendants in the case for comments.

It will be another 18 months before Alex Mishulovich walks out of a federal prison in northeastern Kentucky. The nine-year sentence began after Mishulovich coerced five women from Latvia and Belarus to dance in strip clubs in the Chicago area.

His 2000 conviction was Illinois’ first known case against a trafficker.

The case led to the creation of a task force to combat trafficking. For a short while, it brought together officials from the Chicago Police Department, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service—now reorganized under the Department of Homeland Security—the U.S. Attorney’s Office and human-rights advocates.

Three years later, authorities themselves can’t confirm whether the task force still exists or how it operates. Officials from the Chicago Police Department, FBI, Heartland, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement say they work together on trafficking cases, but that they don’t regularly meet on the issue. “We had had it organized, and it may have even been called a task force,” Steglich said. “But, at this point, there’s not a formal coalition that’s formed.”

To keep the issue near the forefront, some say it takes special agents or prosecutors with a passion—such as Kinney, who put Mishulovich behind bars before human trafficking itself was a state or federal crime.

It wasn’t until October 2000 that Congress created the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which not only defined the crime, but also recognized that people like the Korean woman were victims, not criminals. Under the law, those convicted of trafficking could be sentenced to 20 years in prison. If the case involved kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, or, if the victim died, traffickers can serve life sentences. Between fiscal years 2001 and 2003, 21 trafficking charges were filed nationwide, leading to convictions of 28 individuals.

Before the law was created, traffickers were prosecuted under other offenses, such as visa fraud, prostitution, smuggling, criminal sexual assault, kidnapping and assault. Even today, that’s how the cases are often handled, usually because of logistical difficulties.

To pursue the Mishulovich case, Kinney recalls having to contact his colleagues in Washington, D.C., just to get through to contacts with the Latvian police department. “We knew early on it was going to be an expensive, long, difficult, international investigation,” Kinney said. “All my evidence was overseas. A lot of my witnesses were overseas.”

Some are concerned that prosecutors are too selective about which cases to pursue. “There seems to be a reluctance to prosecute where you have just a single victim, where it’s not a case that’s going to get a lot of press, or where the coercion is mostly debt-based, or psychological coercion-based,” Steglich said.

Randall Samborn, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago, declined to detail how attorneys choose their cases. “Every case that is presented to us or referred by a law enforcement agency, we look at on its own merits,” Samborn said. “We don’t discuss publicly what our reasons are for either prosecuting or not prosecuting either a specific case or cases in general.”

Kinney, a U.S. prosecutor for 16 years now working for the U.S. Department of Justice in Moscow, said there are many instances when officials want to pursue a case but can’t because the victims can’t be found or are unwilling to cooperate. “The reason there’s not more convictions on human trafficking cases in the U.S. is that we can’t find the cases,” Kinney said. “Believe me when I tell you, as a prosecutor, there was incredible prestige in finding the trafficking cases.”

Kinney recalls one instance when Sergui Tcharouchine, a co-conspirator of Mishulovich, took the five dancers to the grocery store. The women were not allowed to leave his side unsupervised. Tcharouchine shoplifted a pack of cigarettes and was arrested. Instead of going to police, the women fled, fearing their own arrests, and went back to the home of their trafficker’s partner, Kinney said.

Fahey, of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said winning victims’ cooperation is crucial. “In all these cases, whether it be a lead or something we work, you do need the victim/witnesses to make a successful prosecution,” he said. “They know the inner workings. They can identify members. They also are ones that can testify if need be against members in the organization.”

Rather than pursuing trafficking charges, prosecutors often choose to bring other charges that carry similar penalties and have better chances for conviction—such as visa fraud, extortion and rape. “A prosecutor has an incentive to go that route, go the more certain route, rather than working under the trafficking provisions,” Kinney said.

In the Rockford case, 13 defendants were indicted for conspiracy to launder money and use of interstate facilities to aid racketeering—such as using credit card machines to aid prostitution. The crimes carry a maximum of 20 and five years in prison, respectively. At this point, the indictments don’t include human trafficking. Heartland contends that trafficking took place, but Michael F. Iasparro, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, is more cautious. “If the evidence supports bringing those types of charges, certainly that is something the U.S. Attorney’s Office will look at,” he said. But “the evidence has to be there.”

In general, trafficking cases are not the federal government’s highest priority. According to the FBI priorities, set every few years by the president, trafficking is a violation of “civil rights”—the category that ranks fifth on the list of 10 priorities, below combating public corruption.

Still, the FBI joined forces with the Justice Department in 2003 for a project called Operation Innocence Lost to specifically target sexual exploitation and trafficking among youth by targeting 13 U.S. cities, including Chicago. In 2004, the Justice Department funneled $7 million in grants to assist that operation.

Some say that, since they often work on tips, local authorities are more likely to come in contact with traffickers first. But giving them more authority will be no panacea. Absent a state law, state’s attorneys don’t have the legal means to prosecute people for trafficking, Iasparro said.

“More often than not, the resources simply aren’t there on the state level to devote to a long-term investigation like this,” Iasparro said. “It falls to the federal government who has those resources—time, money—to devote to make a case like this and be able to effectively target the larger scope, and not simply go after, for example, the working girl.”

When the Chicago Police Department does encounter a potential case of human trafficking, it is in the area of prostitution, said Ronald Brannan, commander of the vice control section at the department. Those tips are then passed along to the FBI. But it doesn’t happen often, he added.

Torrado, of Heartland, worries that much of the trafficking in Chicago happens outside of prostitution, causing some victims to be overlooked. “I know that the focus out there and the targeted population is those in the sex industry and prostitution,” Torrado said. “You’re going to see what you’re looking for and you could be missing a laborer in a factory that’s right down the corner.”

One of the key components of Blagojevich’s new anti-trafficking program will focus on making sure that those who are most likely to come in contact with victims will take notice.

“We’re going to train first responders,” said Grace Hou, assistant secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, which is leading the campaign. Hou is a member of the Reporter’s advisory board.

Torrado believes the campaign will create a “snowball effect” that will bring more victims to the surface. Heartland is teaching warning signs to members of various agencies, including the Illinois State Police, Department of Children and Family Services, and organizations that deal with domestic violence and other violent crimes. The training will “give them the immediate tools to respond and stop the situation of trafficking when they see it,” Steglich said.

Hou said the initiative came about after she read an article on trafficking in The New York Times Magazine, which named Chicago as one of the crime’s hubs. “The thing that really unnerved me was how young some of the individuals who were trafficked were—some as young as 2 years old,” she said. “There’s some responsibility on behalf of the state to do something in response to what we know is something that’s going on that’s absolutely horrible.”

Proposed state legislation, expected to be approved this summer, would allow traffickers to be prosecuted at the state level and award restitution to victims for unpaid wages. “I was surprised and shocked to learn that there was this much happening—14,500, 17,500 [people trafficked nationwide]. Illinois could be 5 percent of that, based on our population,” said state Sen. John Cullerton, a North Side Democrat who is the bill’s co-sponsor.

For now, the Korean woman is staying at a safe shelter arranged by Heartland.

Legally, she is still unable to work, though she may be eligible for a special visa through a rarely used federal law established in 2000. T-Visa, as it is called, allows trafficking victims to remain and work in the country and obtain permanent residency status after three years. Those who agree to cooperate with authorities in prosecuting their traffickers are eligible for the visa.

Between March 2002 and August 2004, 415 trafficking victims received the visa, according to the Homeland Security Department.

The number could be the tip of the iceberg, Torrado said. “Think about that in domestic violence cases. You can look at the numbers that are reported and you know there are a greater number out there that never get reported,” she said.

Iasparro also believes that the Rockford case is indicative of what’s happening elsewhere. “Rockford is certainly not an isolated community in terms of this type of crime,” Iasparro said. “It’s going on all over the place.”

Contributing: Liliana Ibara and Robert VerBruggen. Miriam Cintrón and Bianca Sepulveda helped research this article.