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PART ONE: ‘THIS IS WHAT HUMAN TRAFFICKING LOOKS LIKE’
WITH THE DEATH OF HIS MOTHER LAST SUMMER, Sigurds Zitars, a retired accountant, was the only family member left in University Place, Washington. Since 2006 “Sig” had been the clan’s caregiver, after his mother developed dementia and his father and sister both took ill. In January, Zitars was fixing up the family home for sale when police broke down its door, arresting the 62-year-old at gunpoint. According to the state, Zitars was one of at least a dozen bad guys associated with an elite league of sexual predators and a multi-state sex-trafficking ring.
News of the bust played perfectly into the growing narrative from both activists and officials that sex trafficking—the use of force, fraud, or coercion to trap people in prostitution—is rampant in America, a pernicious form of what Barack Obama described in 2012 as “modern slavery.” According to political lore, both girls-next-door and women smuggled across U.S. borders are at risk, their exploitation aided by online tools and the indifference of lusty patrons.
On January 7, Washington officials unveiled a perfect storm of such horrors: Women lured from South Korea under false pretenses and “held against their will” at local brothels. A website where deviant men promoted and reviewed these enslaved women. “Because they had money,” said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg at a televised press conference, these men “gained access to sexually abuse these vulnerable young women, then put their energies toward a campaign to encourage many more men to do the same.”
“The systematic importation of vulnerable young women for sexual abuse, exploitation, and criminal profiteering has been going on for years and it came to a stop this week,” Satterberg added. “This is what human trafficking looks like.”
But as more information about the case has become available, Satterberg’s narrative starts to break down. The reality—as evidenced by police reports, court documents, online records, and statements from those involved—is far less lurid and depraved. Instead of a story of stark abuse and exploitation, it’s a story of immigration, economics, the pull of companionship and connection, the structures and dynamism that drive black markets, and a criminal-justice system all too eager to declare women victims of the choices they make.
The story is presented here in three parts. The first offers a glimpse at how this sexual economy actually operated, the motivations of its main actors, and how police came to “infiltrate” the scene. Part two explores how the government’s war on prostitution—rebranded as a war on sex trafficking—brands innocent men as sexual predators and sets dangerous new standards of disrespect for free speech and free association rights. And part three looks at how policies designed to get tough on pimps and traffickers wind up threatening the very women they’re supposed to save.
‘Shipped From City to City’
The first wave of arrests came just after New Year’s. On January 6, working with the FBI and the Bellevue Police Department (BPD), officers from the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) raided 12 upscale apartments in Bellevue, a large and affluent suburb of Seattle that’s become a hub of tech industry. At a press conference the next day, they announced that 12 female victims from South Korea had been rescued, 12 “brothels” closed, and a major human-trafficking ring shut down.
The team also seized three websites: The Review Board (TRB), a web forum where Seattle sex workers and clients communicated; KGirlsDelights.com, a directory of Korean sex-workers and escort-agencies in America; and TheLoeg.com, a private site for local prostitution story-swapping. TRB was run by “Tahoe Ted”—otherwise known as Sigurds Zitars—arrested the day prior along with nine suspected members of the LOEG (or “League,” as police spelled it).
Prosecutor Dan Satterberg described the situation as one of extreme coercion and criminality, calling the 12 Asian women recovered in the operation “true victims of human trafficking.”
News of the bust soon spread in sensational newscasts and lurid headlines. The U.K.’s Daily Mail summed the story up like this: “Police smash prostitution ring and rescue 12 South Korean women forced into $300-an-hour prostitution by ex marijuana grower who pimped them out across the U.S.”
A Bellevue paper claimed the Korean women were “required to work off their family’s debts through sexual service.”The Seattle Times reported that police had thwarted “a widespread prostitution ring run by a group of men known as ‘The League.'” Local news network KIRO 7 named photographer Michael Durnal and ex-marijuana entrepreneur Donald Mueller as the ringleaders, men who “sold women all over” America…