"This all came from one tip at one location and it grew into this massive, massive investigation," said Deputy Paul Liskey to a homeowners association group Thursday evening as suspects were still being questioned. "This is the largest investigation we have ever seen in this area."
Sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelly said the Alameda County prostituion network started in San Jose and has led law enforcement to Los Angeles and to Oregon. The local investigation began in the fall with a tip from a local resident and grew to use the resources of 120 deputies, officers and agencies. Twelve search warrants were served Thursday at five homes and the following eight businesses:
Many of the businesses operated near schools, churches and residential neighborhoods.
"These establishments bring crime, sexual predators into the area, robberies," Sgt. Kelly said.
The businesses are closed until further notice.
Law enforcement confiscated some $50,000 in cash Thursday, most of it from people's homes. Another $15,000 was seized from bank accounts, as were 15 high-end vehicles that were purchased with the proceeds, according to the Alameda County Sheriff's Department.
Most of the businesses were operating under the auspices of being relaxation, health or tanning centers, or anything to do with beauty care or massage, said Kelly. Most of the businesses were catering to recent illegal Hispanic immigrants, who likely paid in cash and were not likely to go to the police, Kelly added. The businesses had been operating the past several months.
"We caught this very early on and got a handle on it before it got out of hand," he said.
Kelly said the businesses were all connected to San Jose and the South Bay area, where some operators were recently arrested on identical charges. The suspects were Vietnamese and Chinese nationals who were not affiliated with each other and were targeting Hispanic and Caucasian cultures.
"There was a particular couple or group that was opening these businesses and selling or franchising them as fast as they could to get them running," Kelly added.
He said the businesses carry little to no overhead costs, and once sex workers were hired, the customer base comes. Most of the advertising was in sfredbook.com, in Hispanic newspapers or craigslist. The Sherriff's office views the women sex workers as being exploited for the purposes for financial gain.
"We were targeting the operators and profiteers of these businesses," Kelly said. They are being investigated on conspiracy to commit pimping and pandering, money laundering and prostitution. The report will be brought to the Alameda County District Attorney for criminal prosecution next week.
The officers involved in the investigation came from the Alameda County Sherriff's Office, police departments from the cities of Oakland, Livermore, Hayward, San Jose, Dublin and Fremont as well as from Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Alameda County Drug Task Force, the Sexual Assault Task Force and East Bay Regional Parks.
"The major targets are in custody, their assets have been seized," Kelly said. "A foundation has been set and tentacles are out. We may still uncover way more activity."
Kelly said there is an underground network that operates where the girls are traded around by referral and the same culture.
Law enforcement conducted their operations through surveillance and sent undercover officers to illegal operations and into legal establishments. Many of the illegal operations looked like legitimate businesses.
In one business advertised as a tanning salon, there wasn't even a tanning bed and barely a lamp. Kelly said neighbors of many of the businesses were suspicious, saying they knew something was going on but had not reported anything. He urged people to go to reputable places.
"Citizens need to watch," Kelly said. "If the business is called Angel Beauty Care and all that goes in there are men, it's probably a sign."