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Six charged in prostitution ring

Five Chinese nationals and a U.S. citizen are suspected of operating 10 brothels. The probe is called the largest of its kind in Orange County.

March 23, 2007|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

Six people have been charged with pimping and operating 10 brothels staffed by women from China in what authorities said was the largest prostitution investigation ever in Orange County.

Law enforcement officials said the ring, which also operated in Los Angeles and Riverside counties, was broken up last week after a three-year investigation by local and federal agencies.

Investigators believe the ring may have been running at least 31 houses of prostitution.

The brothels, allegedly operated by five Chinese nationals and a U.S. citizen beginning in 2004, were advertised as acupuncture centers and massage parlors, but sex was the only service offered, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said at a news conference Thursday.

In an apparent effort to economize, customers used plastic food wrap instead of condoms. Jian Shi, a 49-year-old Montebello resident and the alleged ringleader, bought 7,500 square feet of plastic wrap over a two-month period, Rackauckas said.

"I really don't think about [plastic food wrap] in the same way anymore," he said.

Authorities said six of the brothels were in Anaheim, and the others were in Dana Point, Orange, Rancho Mirage and Tustin.

In Anaheim, Shi and defendant Guo Hua Chen may have run as many as 15 phony massage parlors and acupuncture centers, Police Capt. Joe Reiss said.

Chen, a 56-year-old Monterey Park resident, is an acupuncturist who used his license to give the appearance of legitimacy to the businesses, Reiss said.

Prosectors said six of the brothels -- three in Anaheim, and those in Dana Point, Orange and Tustin -- closed starting in 2004 after some of the prostitutes were arrested.

Shi is believed to have been running 16 other suspected brothels in Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties, Reiss said.

William J. Hayes, an investigator for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the prostitutes were willing participants. U.S. officials were checking their immigration status and that of the other ethnic Chinese involved in the ring.

Hayes said federal wiretaps were used in the investigation.

Ten women have been charged with misdemeanor counts of prostitution, but authorities said they had no idea how many prostitutes worked for the ring. Investigators said men paid $80 for sex.

About 75 officers and agents from various law enforcement agencies arrested the suspects March 16. They seized $44,000 in cash and froze $650,000 in bank accounts linked to the suspects, Hayes said.

Also arrested were Hong Jun Bai, 42, of Rowland Heights and Xueyan Yu, 49, of Huntington Beach. One U.S. citizen, John Couch, 46, and his wife, Yu Mei Cheng-Couch, 38, of San Clemente, also were arrested. They allegedly operated a brothel in Dana Point.

Yu was charged with a misdemeanor count of running a brothel and faces a year in jail if convicted. Cheng-Couch was charged with a misdemeanor count of running a brothel and a felony count of conspiracy to commit pimping. The others were charged with felony counts of conspiracy to commit pimping and operating a brothel. Couch was charged with an additional felony count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Shi, Chen and Bai, who were being held in custody without bail, face a maximum of six years in prison if convicted. Couch faces a maximum of six years and eight months if convicted, and his wife could face six years. The couple were being held on $35,000 bail each.

Authorities said the investigation was continuing and that additional suspects may be arrested.

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hgreza@latimes.com

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