Two charged with running sex work operation in Denver

The Denver District Attorney’s Office said the case is unique because it’s the first time they’ve used financial charges to lead a human trafficking case.
4 min. read
A Denver Police Department car. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Two people face charges for allegedly running a human trafficking ring involving women who provide sex work out of a Denver home.

The Denver District Attorney's Office on Monday said in a statement, Xiaoli Gao, 51, and Zhong Wei Zhang, 49, were arrested Nov. 20 and remain in custody. Both are Chinese nationals.

Court documents show the two allegedly ran a brothel out of a home on West Ellsworth Avenue purchased by Gao in March 2014. Gao is Zhang's sister-in-law.

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said the charges are unique because it's the first time her office has used financial crimes to indict alleged human traffickers. McCann said this approach spares the victims of trafficking from having to testify. Senior Deputy District Attorney Lara Mullin said the approach has been used in other jurisdictions around the country.

"Historically, law enforcement has always had problems prosecuting traffic cases because the cases relied so heavily on the presence and testimony of the victims," Mullin said. "Often times, those victims were transient, they wanted to return home. They were pretty uniquely traumatized and didn't want to be part of a case."

The office partnered with Denver police and other state and federal agencies in the investigation. Over the past few years, McCann's office has stepped up its commitment to prosecuting such cases.

Court documents said Denver police began investigating Gao and Zhang in March 2018 after neighbors noticed new tenants at the home appeared to be young Asian women and men constantly went in and out of the house throughout the day. Neighbors called the National Human Trafficking hotline, sparking a Denver police investigation.

Denver police detective Joe Portillo visited the West Ellsworth Avenue home in August 2018 after contacting a number from a sexual advertisement. Portillo said he met an Asian woman who agreed to perform sex for money, according to court documents. Portillo reported seeing few furniture pieces inside the home, though he saw beds, lotions and condoms.

McCann said there were at least six contacted victims who were involved, all from China, though she said it's possible there are more. Those six women returned to their home country voluntarily.

Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said historically, law enforcement has gotten such cases wrong. He said the department wants to keep the people "exploiting vulnerable populations" accountable, not victims.

"We were revictimizing victims of human trafficking and we want to make sure that doesn't happen in the future," Pazen said.

On Monday following the press conference, City Councilman Paul Kashmann said that he plans on introducing a bill focusing on massage parlors that mirrors one passed by Aurora in 2018. McCann said her office would support such a bill in Denver.

The Aurora bill added new requirement for massage parlor businesses, which McCann said has prompted some of these businesses to move to Denver. The Aurora Sentinel reported in 2018 that the FBI had targeted parlors in Aurora for possible human trafficking. Court documents said Gao owns a massage parlor in Lakewood.

Kashmann said the bill would require more detailed information on the business owners, which would help in future investigations.

Gao and Zhang are charged with violating the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act, conspiracy to commit pimping, pimping, conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering, conspiracy to commit keeping a place of prostitution, keeping a place of prostitution and filing a false tax return.  These include both felony and misdemeanor charges.

The two will be arraigned on Feb. 10 in Denver at Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse.

Pazen said the department's human trafficking unit is investigating 22 cases in Denver. Those are not related to the case detailed Monday. They include sex trafficking and labor trafficking cases.

Authorities want residents who see suspected human trafficking to call the state's hotline at 1-866-455-5075 or send a text to 720-999-9724.

This story has been updated.

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