Four men and a woman were charged with smuggling at least a dozen women from Thailand into this country and forcing them to work as prostitutes at a heavily guarded Chinatown brothel, federal authorities announced Wednesday.
Officials said that the defendants, all Thai nationals, promised the women lucrative restaurant jobs in New York but instead imprisoned them in the brothel and ordered them to have sex with 400 to 500 men to win their freedom.
Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that four of the five defendants were arrested Wednesday morning by agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The fifth is still being sought.
The authorities said the ring had been smuggling women into the country since at least last summer. The police shut down the brothel, at 206-208 Bowery Street, in early November after someone there called 911.
According to immigration service investigators, scores of women speaking little or no English worked at the brothel. They were kept behind a series of locked doors and monitored by video cameras and three daunting guards. Rarely were any allowed outside to catch even a glimpse of daylight. Their hope of release was pinned on meticulous records they kept of how many customers they served.
The immigration service said it first became aware of the compulsory prostitution at the Chinatown brothel on Oct. 11. The place was not closed until Nov. 8, however, because the police said they were helping immigration officials and did not want to interrupt their investigation.
Investigators said the five defendants played various roles in the smuggling case. They include Somchay Khounsavanh, also known as Sam, 39, of 909 Washington Boulevard, Stamford, Conn., who was described as a guard at the brothel and Saravut Wattanasiri, known as Yai or Kevin, 30, of 20 Confucius Plaza in Chinatown, who the authorities said smuggled one of the captive women from Thailand and collected the money she earned.
Each defendant faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. Officials said the investigation is continuing but would not speculate on whether there are likely to be more arrests.