I-Team Investigation: Feds bust alleged multi-state prostitution ring


by Adam Walser


Posted on May 10, 2011 at 5:55 PM

Updated Tuesday, May 10 at 6:31 PM

(WHAS11) - Authorities are calling it “human trafficking”; a prostitution ring that has ties to several states and involves at least two local suspects.

Federal prosecutors say the network operated in Knoxville, Morristown, Johnson City, Nashville and Louisville.

The indictment reads like a textbook description of human trafficking.

It says illegal alien females are brought to cities they don't know, their identifications are taken away and they are forced to have sex with strangers dozens of times a day.

And authorities say they were told if they didn’t cooperate, their families in Mexico would be hurt.

In a quiet brick house on Merioneth Drive in Jeffersontown, authorities raided part of what they're calling a multi-jurisdiction prostitution conspiracy ring last week.

Neighbors were shocked to see federal agents raid the house.

“It's very unusual for this part of town, really,” said Mike Cosby.

“They were in and out of the house, bringing people from the house,” Kameisha Caldwell said of the raid.

Two of those people included Esthela Silfa Vasquez and Obdulio Morales, who live at the home.

Vasquez's daughter told WHAS11 that she was told by authorities not to talk about the investigation.

The suspects are accused of helping to move prostitutes weekly from town to town to work in brothels.

The indictment indicates that the women worked from 1 p.m. until midnight 6 days a week.

Each averaged 30 customers a day, who paid $30 each for a 15 minute session.

The ring was originally discovered by the Hamblen County Sheriff's Office in eastern Tennessee, where two brothels were raided last week.

“It was very popular,” said Hamblen County Sheriff Esco Jarnigan.

There were also two locations in Jefferson County, including at a house in the Newburg community.

Neighbors say they saw little that was suspicious.

“It's kind of a quiet neighborhood. I guess that's how they got away with it,” said Buddy Hughes.

In Jeffersontown, neighbors noticed a few clues something was amiss.

“It always had a lot of cars. I thought they just had a big family,” said Caldwell.

“It's the modern day slavery that's taking place here. We're really blind to it,” said Dr. Theresa Hayden, who teaches a course on human trafficking at the University of Louisville.

She says the accusations in the indictment indicate the prostitutes were here against their will and earned little or no money.

Dr. Hayden also says they were moved from town to town for a reason.

“They don't keep them in a place very long because they don't want them to become familiar with the community,” Hayden said. “They don't want them to become familiar with any particular John. They want them to be totally isolated.”

Authorities believe the prostitution ring has been operational for about five years.

They say during that time, the suspects earned hundreds of thousands of dollars.