You are now logged in. Forgot your password? With the death of his mother last summerSigurds Zitars, a retired ant, was the only family member left in University Place, Washington. Since "Sig" had been the clan's caregiver, after his mother developed dementia and his father and sister both took ill. In January, Zitars was fixing up the family home for sale when police broke down its door, arresting the year-old at gunpoint.
According to the state, Zitars was one of at least a dozen bad guys associated with an elite league of sexual predators and a multi-state sex-trafficking ring. News of the bust played perfectly into the growing narrative from both activists and officials that sex trafficking—the use of force, fraud, or coercion to trap people in prostitution—is rampant in America, a pernicious form of what Barack Obama described in as "modern slavery.
On January 7, Washington officials unveiled a perfect storm of such horrors: Women lured from South Korea under false pretenses and "held against their will" at local brothels. A website where deviant men promoted and reviewed these enslaved women. But as more information about the case has become available, Satterberg's narrative starts to break down. The reality—as evidenced by police reports, court documents, online records, and statements from those involved—is far less lurid and depraved.
Instead of a story of stark abuse and exploitation, it's a story of immigration, economics, the pull of companionship and connection, the structures and dynamism that drive black markets, and a criminal-justice system all too eager to declare women victims of the choices they make. The story is presented here in three parts. The first offers a glimpse at how this sexual economy actually operated, the motivations of its main actors, and how police came to "infiltrate" the scene.
Part two explores how the government's war on prostitution—rebranded as a war on sex trafficking—brands innocent men as sexual predators and sets dangerous new standards of disrespect for free speech and free association rights. And part three looks at how policies deed to get tough on pimps and traffickers wind up threatening the very women they're supposed to save.
The first wave of arrests came just after New Year's. At a press conference the next day, they announced that 12 female victims from South Korea had been rescued, 12 "brothels" closed, and a major human-trafficking ring shut down.
Prosecutor Dan Satterberg described the situation as one of extreme coercion and criminality, calling the 12 Asian women recovered in the operation "true victims of human trafficking. News of the bust soon spread in sensational newscasts and lurid headlines.
The U. A Bellevue paper claimed the Korean women were "required to work off their family's debts through sexual service. It was shocking, scandalous, horrifying.
Yet almost none of it is true. While most publications were careful to pepper "police said" into articles, their headlines and language precluded any sense of impartiality.
That article, syndicated widely, said Korean women were "shipped from city to city about every month and typically not allowed to leave their apartments except to go to the airport. Police, meanwhile, continued to expand the reach of the case.
In early May, five months after the first arrests, six more men were added to the complaint against alleged League members. These new defendants included archetypes of the Seattle-Bellevue tech class, including an executive at Microsoft, an engineer for Boeing, and a director of software development for Amazon.
Local media reported that these men were part of a " large-scale sex trafficking operation " and offered headlines such as " Microsoft and Amazon Execs Busted for Promoting Sex Slavery. Yet almost none of it is true—and the little that is technically true is so lacking in context that it's utterly misleading.
Almost everything that follows was known by detectives prior to their January raids and press conference, because it comes directly from court documents that they filed to establish probable cause for each defendant's arrest. However, the picture that emerges from these documents bears little resemblance to the dramatic and dystopian tale that police publicly spun.
Begin with police's claim that The Review Board was a "sex trafficking website" where "prostituted women" were advertised and reviewed. This implies the women promoted on TRB had no control over Craigslist Bellevue WA sex appearing there, did not want clients to review them, and generally did not want to be engaged in commercial sex.
On the contrary, the core of TRB's business model consisted of escorts posting advertisements for themselves. Countless Seattle-area sex workers who have advertised on the site have attested to this. As one, "Veronica," told the women's site BroadlyTRB "was really a wonderful thing that kept everyone safe. Girls would be in touch with each other. A lot of people used it as a reference system—have you seen this person and are they safe?
That TRB worked as an advertising and review system deed to benefit both sex workers and their clients is not something detectives could have merely misunderstood.
King County Detective Luke Hillman had been posting undercover on TRB for years—interacting with many defendants in this case—before any arrests were made. And not only were many of the women who advertised on TRB openly listed as "independent," police have in their possession hundreds of s that show the women actively managing their businesses. For instance, the Certificate for Determination of Probable Cause against Phillip Dehennis, who was charged with "promoting prostitution"—more on that particular charge later—highlighted a string of s between him and sex worker "Sabreena.
When Dehennis completes the review, he s her again and asks her to check it for accuracy, to which Sabreena replies "thank you so much for the review! So what about the two men, Durnal and Mueller, whom KIRO 7 called sex-trafficking ringleaders who "sold women all over the country?
But even the case for that is flimsy. Despite initially labeling both men "human traffickers," police present no substantial evidence in charging documents that local K-Girls were captive or unwilling. By all s, these women flew to Seattle voluntarily and without chaperones, usually from other U. The K-Girls were, in essence, independent contractors. This is the main criminal activity alleged of Mueller and Durnal: providing K-girls with live-work space, posting online for them, and screening and booking their clients.
The men paid the rent and utilities on these spaces and stocked them with furniture and supplies, such as mouthwash and condoms, but did not live there. Visiting K-girls each got their own bedroom and private bathroom. Craigslist Bellevue WA sex that make Mueller and Durnal "pimps"? Yes, in the sense that the definition of a pimp is anyone who helps manage business for a sex worker or makes money off of prostitution.
But Mueller and Durnal don't conform to pimp stereotypes. The men—both prolific sex buyers themselves—weren't violent or abusive. They didn't have sex with the women they booked, provide them with drugs, try to keep them dependent, or try to keep them from leaving in fact, their business model depended on women coming and going relatively quickly. They provided a service and took a fee, leaving the K-Girls with whom they worked with a personal profit of hundreds of dollars per day. Of course, being paid doesn't, on its own, preclude being exploited.
What about the claims that the K-Girls were forced to work 12 to 14 hours daily? The only evidence in police documents to support these statements is TRB advertisements that list escorts' appointment availability. Some did indeed indicate availability windows stretching 10 to 12 hours. But being available during those hours doesn't mean the women were actually working for all or even most of them. Mueller allegedly told police that his escorts saw an average of five clients per day, with a typical session lasting one hour. It's similarly unclear on what basis police allege that K-Girls were trapped in the area or in their apartments.
Probable cause documents for Mueller and Durnal offer nothing to support this accusation.
A case summary for Mueller states that "Donald's sex workers typically travel via airplane to work at his brothels. His sex employees pay their own travel expense to get to Seattle. Within the plans, the pair discuss how to get Ann to the U. Ann mentions that she will pay Donald to "Make appointments with customers. Statements made by League members in their private communications also fail to create an impression that these women were hapless prisoners.
For instance, after a session with K-Girl "Mari," one member reports that "she told me she's a total gym rat, spending about two hours a day in the gym. This girl can lift some weights! Even if Mari was making use of the building's rooftop gym, such activities suggest that, at the very least, she wasn't captive and could have reached out for help in some way had she wanted to. This interpretation is further supported by the fact that these women had internet-enabled phones, which they were able to use freely.
One K-Girl who always took great pride in her nails told him she was saving up to open a nail salon and body-waxing spa back home. There's little in police charging documents to suggest Seattle K-Girls were powerless over how long they stayed in the area. Yes, they frequently told customers they weren't sure how long they would stick around. But although this could be a someone is pulling the strings elsewhere, it could just as easily mean that they don't think it's the client's business, that it depends on how long the agency will let them, or—the reason they're most often reported to give—that it depends how business goes.
TRB reviews included in police documents further indicate that K-Girls had their own motivations for staying or going.
A June review of "Ace K" says "she will be leaving the 29th… The weather is getting her down 'I'm an LA girl' so she said she will restrict her visits to the warmer months in the future. She is slow but wants to stay in Bellevue because it's clean, she said. Remember that police claim to have thousands of s, posts, and private communications between those charged to choose from.
The few hundred they included in court documents from which these quotes are drawn are what they describe as "representative examples. Police documents also indicate that women who advertised on TRB, including K-Girls, set different prices, had different boundaries, and offered differing levels of sexual activity. For League members, these were limits to be staunchly respected. A "Code of Conduct" states that individuals will be blacklisted if they don't use condoms, take a shower and use mouthwash at the start of each appointment, respect individual boundaries, and remember that no means no.
That seems rather gentlemanly—perhaps even feminist? But the key to painting League members as traffickers and abusers lies in framing all sex workers as victims.
If you understand the K-Girls and others who advertised on TRB as individuals with choice and agency, the men who paid them for sex are no more abusers than you or I when we pay someone to watch our kids, listen to us talk about problems, or fix our cars. If evidence of the kind of human trafficking ring that haunts the public-imagination existed here, detectives shouldn't have had trouble uncovering it.
An undercover detective first attended a TRB meet-and-greet—meeting both Donald Mueller and the site's proprieter, Sigurds Zitars—in Off and on for two years, Hillman would post lengthy and detailed descriptions of alleged sexual encounters with sex workers to TRB. ZIP: 98004 98005 98006 98007 98008 98009 98015