Once involved, police said, it was hard for the women to get out. Money, ID cards and cellphones were locked in safes. The court documents say that the women had to meet a $200 a shift quota, and if they failed they were forced to work "overtime," which the agents said "meant having sex for money with customers at strip clubs."
It also was hard for the women to get the attention of law enforcement. The FBI said in court documents that El Paso police at least once passed on information to federal authorities after encountering a woman from the group. But the FBI said that the local officers twice simply put women on a bus and sent them back to Baltimore. The documents say the police "took no further action."
Prosecutors have not alleged that their owners, managers or workers knew about the alleged sex ring or were complicit in its operations. The woman interviewed by The Sun, and the federal court documents, say that a doorman and manager at one of the clubs helped one of the dancers escape from the group.
Lawyers or owners reached for Chez Joey and the Ritz declined to comment, saying they know nothing of the allegations. Peter Prevas, a longtime attorney in Baltimore who has represented clubs and workers on The Block for years, said he has not encountered human trafficking.
He said most of the dancers "had or still have a drug problem and are trying to get into that dancing environment. … From eating lunch down there, I see guys dropping women off, but I wouldn't know them to be pimps."
The FBI identified the ringleaders of the alleged Baltimore-El Paso sex ring as 43-year-old Alarcon Allen Wiggins, known as "J-Roc," and Deangelo Smith, who goes by "D-Lo." Their lawyers in Texas did not return calls. Police said both are from the Baltimore area; Wiggins has addresses on Pulaski Highway and in Hampstead. Both men are being detained in a federal detention center in Texas.
Prosecutors said each suspect has been charged with one count of transportation for prostitution and one count of coercion and enticement. They could each receive up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Five of the 10 suspects pleaded not guilty in federal court in Texas last week and three others are scheduled to be arraigned there on Monday. Two female suspects are still in Baltimore.
Wiggins, at his hearing in El Paso, told the judge, "We are being set up. What if we didn't do it?" according to an Associated Press account of the proceeding. "They drive us from our home, they put chains on us for 30 days and nobody listens to us."
The woman interviewed by The Sun said she was taken in by the music. After initial chats over various social networking sites, she said she began texting one of the ringleaders and eventually decided to date him. She said he promised to put her music on a CD and take her on tour starting in May 2010.
They went to York, Pa., where the woman said she first encountered the other men and women, both suspects and other victims. But she still had her cellphone and access to email, and was regularly checking in with friends. They then started the "tour," which took them to the motel in Laurel.
"Something just didn't seem right," the woman said.
The men, women and some children — who belonged to the suspects or other victims — were packed into two adjoining rooms. The man she believed she was dating told her they needed money to continue the music tour, she said, and sent her to The Block.
Beds were moved to block the doors of the motel rooms; the only way out was to go through the adjoining men's room. The woman said the men drove them to the club and waited outside in case the women tried to walk away. When on the street, she said, they were forced to keep their heads down, eyes to the ground, and were never allowed to talk to anyone.
It was in the motel in Laurel that the woman said she first saw a friend get beaten for suggesting she might leave. The men gradually took away her possessions.
The group soon left for New Orleans, where she said the women danced at a club near Bourbon Street. They worked in shifts and on alternate days; those who weren't dancing stayed in the room to take care of the children, clean and spend time with the men.
It was here that the woman said she got her first chance to sing. It wasn't in a concert hall, or in a recording studio. She said the closest she got to performing was on a street corner.
At the club one night, the woman said she took a rare moment alone to try to get away. With other women in a private lap dance area, she raced out the front door, in high-heels "and my stripper clothes," and borrowed a cellphone from a stranger to call her ex-boyfriend in Maryland.
It was 3 in the morning.