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."
Most alluring, the group was going on tour. The young woman eagerly joined up, and even became what she thought was the leader's girlfriend. The group left Baltimore in May 2010. They got as far as a motel on a seedy stretch of U.S. 1 in Laurel before she realized something was wrong.
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.
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."
The two clubs in Baltimore named in federal court documents in connection with the case are Chez Joey on The Block and the Ritz Cabaret on South Broadway.
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.
"I was too scared to call the police," she said. She returned to the club.
On that same trip, the woman said she was twice forced to have sex with some men in a room down the hall from theirs, for $40 each time. She also said she had to convince other, new women who'd joined the group, to also engage in prostitution.
After a night that netted more money than usual, the woman said, the group packed up and drove to Texas. The leaders had a house there, the FBI said in court documents, but the woman said they first stayed in a Motel 6. She said she constantly had to tell her "boyfriend" that she loved him, to lure him into a false sense of complacency. That might win her more freedom, and a chance to get away, she thought.
There was a new woman there, and during a moment alone, they started talking.
"Do you want to leave?" the new woman asked.
"Every day since I got here," the woman answered.
They told the men they needed to get ice, and even invited one of the ringleaders along to avoid raising suspicion. The man declined, and the two went out alone. They stood at the ice machine, counted to three, and ran to a motel across the street.
There, the clerk hid them in a back office as one of the men came searching. Police took them to a bus station and in June this year they made a four-day Greyhound journey back to Maryland, using money wired by the other woman's parents. The had no identification and no change of clothes. The other woman's father called the FBI.
The next day, the woman got an email from the man she said had promised her a concert tour. It called her a "throw away hoe" and added, "You will never make it in music u to stupid."
Back in Baltimore, the woman interviewed by The Sun said she stayed briefly with the friend with whom she had escaped, and then with other friends in Prince George's County. But she needed money, and the surest money was back on The Block.
On the night of Sept. 1, at a club identified by police as Chez Joey, the woman said she noticed another young dancer talking with people associated with "424 Records," who had returned to Maryland, to a house they rented off Harford Road.
The dancer had been warned not to talk to the woman because she had left the group. But the dancer wanted to escape, and thought the woman could help her. The dancer got a chance to talk to the woman privately and told her of her plans.
But there was a problem. Her child was back at the house in Northeast Baltimore. The woman, who knew the doorman and manager, said she convinced them to call the suspects and get them to either return the child or face the police.
The dancer had her child back by 3 a.m. The two women hid in the club, around the corner from City Hall and police headquarters, and then made it to the house of the woman who had escaped from El Paso. They called TurnAround and the FBI, who by then were investigating the group.
Federal agents raided the house on Harford Road on Oct. 12.