SOUTH PORTLAND — A 2015 police investigation into prostitution involving the sex trafficking of a Chinese immigrant at a South Portland hotel helped build a case against three New York City residents who were indicted this month on federal charges of operating a multistate prostitution ring.

Police Chief Ed Googins highlighted the case Monday night when the City Council was considering a proposal that would protect immigrants and Muslims from biased policing while avoiding sanctuary city designation by the Trump administration and the potential loss of $9.1 million in federal funding each year.

Googins pointed to the case as an example of how South Portland police work with a variety of law enforcement agencies, including immigration officials, to enforce laws and ensure public safety in Maine and beyond.

Staff at the Main Street hotel reported suspicious activity around noon on March 18, 2015, in a room where a guest had checked in at 1:30 that morning, said Lt. Frank Clark. Local investigators quickly found an escort service advertisement for a prostitute in South Portland on backpage.com, a free classified ad website. An officer called the number in the ad, arranged to have sex at the hotel and had a female sex worker in custody by 1:30 p.m. that day.

The woman was a 27-year-old documented Chinese immigrant with no known address, Clark said. Evidence in the room and on her cellphone indicated that she might be part of a larger operation, so South Portland police notified federal Homeland Security investigators based in South Portland who deal with a variety of human trafficking crimes.

Just over two years later, Feng Yang Chen, 41, LiangLiang Guo, 31, and Cheng Qi Li, 28, all of Flushing, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, were indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on charges of conspiracy to violate the Mann Act and the Travel Act related to operating an interstate prostitution business, the U.S. Department of Justice said this month.

Chen also is charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion; and sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion. She faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to life in prison. Guo and Li each face a maximum five-year sentence.

“This criminal enterprise operated in over a dozen states and the suspects in this case exploited immigration laws to traffic the female victims,” Googins told the council Monday night. “They arranged to have the victims travel to the U.S. under false pretenses and then retained their passports to maintain control over them.”

CALL CENTER IN FLUSHING

The indictment states that from March 2011 to March 2016, Chen and her two male accomplices victimized 12 individuals who traveled state to state to engage in prostitution in various hotels, the Justice Department said. The defendants posted ads on backpage.com that led to encounters with prostitutes in states that included New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas.

Backpage.com shut down its adult services section in the United States after a Senate report charged the website with systematically editing escort ads to remove words that would suggest the site was promoting the sex trafficking of children.

Chen and Li operated a call center in Flushing that scheduled meetings between prostitutes and clients, the Justice Department said. Guo drove the victims to various hotels and collected proceeds from the prostitution.

Chen, who faces the toughest sentence, “callously abused and exploited vulnerable women for her own financial gain,” said James Spero, a Homeland Security Investigations special agent.

In addition to prison time, the indictment seeks $476,355 in prostitution proceeds, two properties in Flushing, a 2012 Porsche Cayenne, and multiple cellphones, computers and iPads used in the prostitution ring.

Prostitution charges against the woman arrested at the South Portland hotel were dismissed, Clark said. Her paperwork indicated she had “green card” status, meaning she was a lawful permanent resident of the United States.

Clark said South Portland police have worked with Homeland Security investigators on other similar cases, but he wasn’t aware of any that resulted in similar enforcement actions in another state.

FEDERAL IMMIGRATION CRACKDOWN

In January, President Trump signed an executive order that encouraged local law enforcement officials to enforce immigration laws and set up a process for cutting off federal funding to so-called “sanctuary cities” and other jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with immigration officials. The move was widely seen as a step by Trump to make good on a campaign promise to deport millions of immigrants deemed to be in the country illegally.

Last month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned that sanctuary jurisdictions could lose as much as $4.1 billion in future federal grants for refusing to cooperate with immigration authorities, and he suggested that the government would come after grants that already have been awarded.

On Tuesday, a federal judge blocked Trump’s attempt to withhold funding from “sanctuary cities” that do not cooperate with U.S. immigration officials, saying the president has no authority to attach new conditions to federal spending.

In Maine, Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, has proposed legislation that would cut state funding to government agencies that failed to comply with or assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law.

On Monday night, the City Council considered a resolution that would affirm the South Portland Police Department’s policies against biased policing and profiling, and allow it to continue collaborating with other law enforcement agencies. The council is expected to vote on the resolution at an upcoming meeting.

A previous proposal, which has been dropped, would have banned the police from assisting, cooperating or providing information in any federal raids, detentions or deportations of immigrants or Muslims without a warrant or subpoena.

Chief Googins told the council that his officers aren’t immigration police and don’t routinely seek information about a person’s citizenship status unless it’s relevant to an arrest or other enforcement action. But he said his officers couldn’t function in their efforts to keep the city safe without assistance from other law enforcement agencies.

“We cooperate with and assist all local, county, state and federal law enforcement and criminal justice agencies that request help,” he told the council. “We also seek help from these same agencies when the circumstances are beyond our capabilities or expertise. It is imperative that we be able to share our local information relevant to those cases.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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