A cross-country law enforcement crackdown targeted a sex-trafficking organization that involved about 100 young women and girls, many of whom were recruited from San Diego County middle and high schools, according to U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy.
Twenty-two suspected gang members and associates face racketeering conspiracy charges in a federal grand jury indictment unsealed Thursday.
Earlier the same day, 14 people were arrested and 11 search warrants were served in San Diego; Hemet, California; Tucson, Arizona; and Austin, Texas as part of Operation Stolen Souls. Seven other alleged members were already in custody, and one is still at large, Duffy says.
All suspects are allegedly associated with the “Tycoons,” a gang formed in 2008 that ran the nationwide prostitution ring, according to the indictment.
Based in San Diego County’s Lemon Grove and Spring Valley, the illicit operation took advantage of about 100 girls and young women, ranging in age from 12 to their mid-20s. Most were recruited from East County schools by pimps and other high-ranking prostitutes, a search warrant states.
"They were enrolling their senior prostitutes into these schools for the sole purpose of recruiting minor girls," Duffy said.
Duffy says the investigation was launched two years ago when East County residents and school officials reported girls coming to school with expensive things and bruises. Parents also notified law enforcement when they saw their daughters listed for prostitution online.
The victims were enticed with a lavish lifestyle or forced into prostitution with threats, intimidation or violence. Prosecutors say pimps would give the women drugs and alcohol to lower their inhibitions and increase productivity.
Once involved, the indictment says they were sent from San Diego to customers across California, Texas, Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada and elsewhere.
To keep their enterprise running, Tycoon members and associates resorted to other crimes such as attempted murder, assaults, drug trafficking, robbery, burglaries and beating or threatening victims, witnesses or community members, according to court documents.
Many of those involved had a dual membership in both the Tycoons and other local gangs, including the Linda Vista Crips, Lincoln Park, West Coast Crips, Emerald Hills and others, prosecutors say.
Their organization was like that of a crime family, court documents allege, so each person had an assigned role. Some managed prostitutes, some coerced them and ensured their obedience through violence, and others handled the money. A few members even placed advertisements to get new clients and booked motel rooms for the illegal acts.
Duffy says that structure is why all 22 defendants are charged with racketeering conspiracy under the RICO statute — something typically reserved for organized crime syndicates and mobsters.
“But as criminal street gangs such as these join forces and become more sophisticated and prolific in their illicit business pursuits, this statute is an effective tool to address all aspects of the criminal conduct,” said a U.S. Attorney news release.
Law enforcement hopes to encourage more community reporting, like the kind that took down this ring. Efforts are also underway in local schools to prevent other girls from becoming victims.
Debbie Beyer, the executive director for Literacy First Charter Schools, was notified of the problem over a year ago.
"It's dumbfounding. It's horrifying, it really is," she told NBC 7.
The warning was enough for Beyer to take action. She gathered about 180 of her high school girls and cautioned them about the sex trafficking activity.
Beyer went as far as getting them involved in helping prostitution victims overseas.
"My goal is you will come back and you will remember what you were told in this situation. You were told there is a safe place for you to go. There is a person who will listen to you," said Beyer.
If you suspect someone is a sex trafficking victim, call Homeland Security at 866-347-2423.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department, Homeland Security Investigations, FBI and other agencies were involved in the suspects' arrests.
The defendants, who range in age from 19 to 30, are listed as James Terelle King, Michael Dean Richardson, Andrew Damon Richardson, Brian Keith Scott, Alondre Shamil Dickerson, Anthony Robert Dennison, Keyon Renta Gill, Donavyn Keith Dove, Ryan Mcintoch Izumi, William Henry Mitchell, Jordan Renee Mitchell, David Michael Stokes, Christian Darwin Wilcox, Marquis Dominique Davis, Cortes Tizzaro Prater, Emmanuel Gumataotao Farol, Donald Mickey Stokes, Wiley Junius Greeno, Deija Renee Lamb, Joseph Benjamin Taylor, Frank Gibson III and Christal Marie Torres.