DENVER, CO (KDVR) — A grand jury handed down an eight-count indictment against a pair of in-laws accused of running a “residential brothel” out of a Denver home.
Investigators accused Xiaoli Gao, 51, and Zhong Wei Zhang, 49, of laundering money received from a prostitution operation through a nearby Chinese massage business that Gao owned.
“This is kind of a new thing for us in the human trafficking realm — to be able to trace the money and charge crimes associated with the use of the money for criminal activity,”said Beth McCann, the district attorney in Denver.
McCann said prosecuting the financial crimes will help protect the alleged victims from having to testify. Denver police Chief Paul Pazen said his department is also working to avoid re-victimizing sex trafficking victims.
“Oftentimes, it is the victim of the sex traffic industry that was the one that was getting the handcuffs put on and getting prosecuted, and we want to make sure that…we’re holding the people that are exploiting vulnerable populations accountable,” he said.
Gao and Zhang are facing charges related to pimping and prostitution in addition to money laundering, filing a false tax return and violating the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act.
According to the indictment, Gao and Zhang are accused of setting up a brothel at a home in southwest Denver.
“During the spring and summer of 2018, women were rotated through the house…on a regular basis to perform prostitution inside the home. These women rarely left the residence except for when they were moved from the home at the end of their stay,” the indictment alleged.
Michael Abeyta, who lived next door to the alleged brothel house, said he would watch dozens of men visit the house at all hours of the day. Sometimes, he said, he counted 30 customers per day.
“They were rolling up every five minutes. One person would go in and he’d come out. Next thing I know, there was another person coming in — like every 15 minutes,” Abeyta said.
He said many of the customers drove expensive vehicles, “like $40K-$50K trucks,” and some visited “twice in the same day, dressed up in suits and stuff like that.”
Abeyta said his wife called the human trafficking hotline when things started spilling onto his property and he worried for their safety.
“It’s a scary thing going through it because the people that were running this traffic ring came to my house and they were kind of scary too,” he said.
Abeyta said he would confront some customers who parked in his driveway, and one time, a customer held a flashlight at his bedroom window. He said he watched men come and go for months.
“That call was the sole information that we had to start this investigation,” said Lara Mullin, a senior deputy district attorney in the Denver District Attorney’s Office. Mullin heads the human trafficking unit, according to McCann.
“When an individual calls the hotline, it’s disseminated to all of us in real time both at the Denver Police Department as well as at the Denver DA’s office,” Mullin said. “We sort of triage those calls immediately…we are taking notice and acting on every single call that comes in.”
The indictment indicates that investigators found “over 100 used condoms, a paper with Chinese characters that appeared to be a ledger, KY gel containers and used tissues,” when they searched the trash outside of the house. Investigators also found that sex-related advertisements were placed on the website, backpage.com, listing prices for sexual services.
A surveillance camera outside of the home also captured video of 257 men who came and went from the home and stayed for 30 minutes or less between mid-March 2018 and mid-August 2018.
“The men would often park down the street or on the side of the home and walk up to the back/side entrance to avoid detection,” the indictment said.
Abeyta said he hopes the victims, who are believed to have moved back to China, are “living a better life” now.
“Being forced to do what they were doing is not a good thing. It’s a scary thing for women,” he said. “I hate for anybody to go through that and I hope one day they can stop all that, but that’s never going to happen.”
Human trafficking hotlines:
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
Colorado Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-866-455-5075