An investigation involving multiple agencies in Southern California has led to the arrest of several individuals suspected of human trafficking in and around Ventura County. Five arrests have been made in connection with the investigation that uncovered a ring involving over two dozen victims and the seizure of over $1 million in assets.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Aug. 23, Ventura County Undersheriff Gary Pentis said that the ring was “nothing short of modern slavery,” describing details uncovered during the six-month investigation. Victims were forced to pay for their own hotel rooms while being held captive, bringing in $350,000 a month for the ring leaders.
“They were forced to pay their drivers, forced to pay for their food, forced to pay for the hotel room,” said Pentis. “That’s one of the ways they were kept captive, continuing to amass a huge debt that they could not pay off.” Pentis described the victims as having to perform sex acts all day, seven days a week.
All of the victims were of Chinese origin, in the country with U.S. visas, officials said.
The investigation discovered that the ring operated out of the San Gabriel Valley, with operations occurring in nine central and southern California counties.
Investigators were tipped off by hotel managers in Camarillo complaining of suspicious activity, which sparked the investigation. Arrests were made after online advertisements and social media websites such as www.backpage.com were targeted.
Human trafficking in Ventura County has been the subject of an annual protest and demonstration hosted by the Soroptomists International’s Stop Human Trafficking campaign. In March, just over four dozen demonstrators marched in front of the Ventura County Government Center, and in December of 2015, at a meeting of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, local activists brought up the issue of human trafficking in the county. At that meeting, the supervisors passed a resolution condemning the sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking.
Debbie Gohlke, chair of Stop Human Trafficking, says that the demonstrations are held to bring awareness to the problem, which she says can fly under the radar.
“Obviously, this is something that’s been happening and people don’t know about it,” said Gohlke. “We are that corridor that goes between San Diego, LA and San Francisco, where traffickers can move these victims and set up shop in these little motel rooms or in the houses they rent.”
Ventura County does not currently have a dedicated task force to prevent human trafficking, says Gohlke, but she thinks creating one would help.
“Ventura County doesn’t have one so the traffickers feel like they’re safe here, because there’s no one agency looking out for them.”