The woman, barely in her 20s and estranged from her family, worked two jobs as she tried to launch a singing career. When she started chatting online with the head of "424 Records," she thought she had finally gotten her break.
The purported record label had music videos on Facebook and YouTube. The promoters appeared to have the cliched trappings of hip-hop — the cars, the gold chains, the girls, the lingo, the cash. But the group's motto breathed tranquillity: "One Team, One Family."
Instead of a singing tour, she was taken back and forth to a nightclub on The Block to strip for money. By then, it was too late.
Federal prosecutors say this woman and others were lured into a sex ring that stretched from Maryland to Texas, from the Depression-era strip clubs along East Baltimore Street to a stucco, frontier-style adult entertainment center on an interstate access road on the dusty outskirts of El Paso.
Authorities said the women were forced to strip and work as prostitutes. They were beaten and robbed of their income, their cellphones and identification cards confiscated in a sophisticated enterprise that took in more than $1 million since 2009, according to documents filed in federal court.
City police and the FBI arrested 10 people last month in a raid at a white clapboard house off Harford Road, down the street from a church and a day care center, where they said women, men and children were packed into rooms devoid of furniture.
The woman described her odyssey with "424 Records" in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. She recounted how she escaped and helped two other women get away, and how she helped the FBI in their pursuit of the suspects, all of whom are facing federal charges in Texas under human trafficking statutes. The details of her story are also included in court documents.
"There is no way to put into words the fear that you feel," said the woman, whose identity is not being divulged because The Sun does not identify victims in sex-crime cases. She was interviewed along with advocates who help battered women and who worked with the federal authorities to aid the victims. Four others identified in court documents were too frightened to talk to a reporter.
To advocates and prosecutors, the case illustrates an inherent danger of the adult entertainment business. Dancers are sometimes victims caught in a sleazy, underground sex trade from which it is hard to escape, they say.
"It's a common theme — they may have initially gotten involved voluntarily, but they didn't realize what they were getting into," said Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. "And once they get involved and want to get out, the pimps don't let them."
The women, Rosenstein said, typically live on society's margins, where family life is more dangerous than the street. Desperate for money or drugs, they are vulnerable to "direct and indirect coercion" and "threatened with retaliation, threatened with guns and threatened with physical violence."
Federal prosecutors in Baltimore formed the Human Trafficking Task Force in 2007 to combat the growing problem of people transporting women across state lines for prostitution. Since then, more than two dozen cases have been prosecuted, including a case in Annapolis that started with an investigation into a fatal shooting and led to allegations of forced prostitution in brothels in Easton and Annapolis.
Melissa Snow, the director of the anti-trafficking program for TurnAround, a center that helps abused and battered women, said human trafficking cases often have links to adult entertainment, from pornography to prostitution. She said strip clubs are a prime hunting ground for pimps.
"The girls are sold over and over and over every night to strangers," said Snow, whose group is helping some of the women involved in the Texas case. "And every dollar they earn goes into the pockets of the traffickers."
This most recent case is one of the largest in Maryland, authorities said. A 16-page FBI affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore details its scope, noting that the suspects bragged on YouTube about leading lavish lifestyles.
They had "models" for videos, who police said were actually the victims. One video showed them shopping for jewelry in an El Paso shopping mall, with one man repeating, "Focus on the money." One video promo on YouTube features a singer calling himself "thug dog" and "g" and flashes images of The Block while the singer praises hollow-point bullets, all while rapping about his control over women.
The victims told agents that they were lured in different ways, according to court documents. An 18-year-old from Baltimore met a woman in a chat room who befriended her, then traveled to Texas to visit her. She planned to stay only two days, but wound up dancing at adult clubs in El Paso.
Another met two of the alleged leaders in the parking lot of a motel in Woodlawn, when they helped jump-start her car and then offered to put her and her child up in a room. Still another was dancing on The Block and met two of the women who police said were among the leaders. The FBI said the women convinced her to join the group.
Women from Maryland escape alleged prostitution ring
Federal authorities allege victims were part of human trafficking ring; 10 arrested and house raided in Northeast Baltimore
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