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Last defendant in Thai sex trafficking ring pleads guilty to federal charges in Minnesota

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota said Sumalee Intarathong, 61, "owned" Thai women living in the United States until they could pay off a "bondage debt" that ranged between $40,000 and $60,000.

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Andrew Luger, U.S. attorney for Minnesota, announced on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016, that federal prosecutors charged 17 people in connection to an international sex trafficking organization that transported hundreds of female sex slaves from Thailand to locations throughout the United States, including the Twin Cities. On Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, the last of nearly 40 defendants pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges, bringing the years-long case to a close, federal prosecutors in Minnesota announced.
Mara H. Gottfried / Pioneer Press file photo
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ST. PAUL — The last of nearly 40 defendants in a nationwide sex trafficking ring has pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges, bringing the years-long case to a close, federal prosecutors in Minnesota announced.

On Tuesday, Nov. 29, 61-year-old Sumalee Intarathong entered a guilty plea before Senior U.S. Judge Donovan W. Frank in St. Paul to one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking and one count of conspiracy to engage in money laundering.

Federal prosecutors in Minnesota say Intarathong worked “directly with others at the highest level” of an international criminal organization to transport hundreds of women from Bangkok to cities across the United States on promises of a better life.

After arriving in America, the women were “owned” by Intarathong or other traffickers until the victim could repay what court documents refer to as an “exorbitant bondage debt,” which could range between $40,000 and $60,000. Intarathong and other co-conspirators would arrange housing for the victims in a “house of prostitution,” where they could earn money by engaging in “commercial sex acts” across the country.

As part of the scheme, federal prosecutors say Intarathong and other co-conspirators engaged in widespread visa fraud to facilitate the international transportation of the victims. Information on the victims’ families would be gathered by the criminal organization and used as a threat if a victim became noncompliant.

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The criminal organization is said to have operated primarily with cash which was laundered in a “sophisticated” manner. Investigators estimated that more than $10 million had been moved from the United States to bank accounts in Thailand and other countries.

“For more than seven years, Ms. Intarathong had been responsible for sex trafficking across the nation,” said Justin Campbell, special agent in charge of the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations Unit in Chicago. “And like many criminals she tried to hide her ill-gotten gains through legitimate purchases — such as vehicles and real estate. Fortunately for American taxpayers, IRS Criminal Investigation special agents are uniquely qualified to follow complex financial transactions and uncover the source of the illegal funds.”

After federal authorities first sought Intarathong’s arrest more than eight years ago, she was arrested in Belgium in August 2016. She was later extradited back to the United States in January 2021.

Now, nearly two years after she was returned stateside, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said her guilty plea makes her the last of 37 convictions that stem from the international sex trafficking ring.

The nearly 40 investigations involved authorities from Homeland Security, IRS, Diplomatic Security Service, St. Paul Police Department, Anoka County Sheriff’s Office and Cook County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Office with the support of the International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center and the Justice Department.

A sentencing hearing has yet to be scheduled for Intarathong, though she could be sentenced to serve life in federal prison.

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A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021 and now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on regional news that impacts the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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