Neighborhood watch: Alert neighbors jump-start sex ring investigation

BRYN MAWR — It was mid-July when neighbors along Morgan Avenue South started buzzing about all the traffic on their street.

The vehicles parking near Bryn Mawr Meadows were of all types, from Lexus and Corvettes to beat-up old trucks. Many of them had out-of-state license plates, mostly from the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin, recalled Welles Emerson, who lives with her husband and son on the street.

“Because we live (near) a softball field, we’re used to having strange cars come to the neighborhood,” Emerson said. “But it was weird. They weren’t parking the places that the people who play softball were parking.”

Neighbors watched, day after day, as men got out of the cars and walked to the house on the corner; a house that, earlier that month, had a “For Rent” sign in the yard. It seemed obvious that something was being sold there, but the men who went inside didn’t look like drug users, Emerson said.

“(The men were) staying about a half-an-hour to an hour,” she said, “and so we started to think, ‘God, this is prostitution.’”

When in December headlines trumpeted the arrest of Liqing Liu, the alleged head of a Twin Cities sex ring involved in human trafficking, there was barely a mention of Bryn Mawr. That may be because the brothel operating on Morgan Avenue was vacated months earlier.

Sgt. Grant Snyder of the Minneapolis Police Department said it was undercover police work that ultimately brought down the ring. But the early and persistent involvement of residents on Morgan Avenue focused police attention on a case that Snyder said might have “languished” with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a federal agency that is less nimble in local investigations.

“They gave us a lot of really, really good information, and it really kick-started our case,” he said.

Feeling anxious

Busts in December at brothels in Uptown and St. Louis Park were followed by revelations that the sex ring operated with about 100 women brought into the country illegally. The women, all from Asia, likely were coerced into prostitution for a chance to make it to the U.S., authorities said.

Emerson said some residents of Morgan Avenue suspected human trafficking months earlier. It seemed obvious the house on their block was a brothel, but almost no one saw any women, ever.

“We all had this sinking realization something was terribly wrong,” she said.

Meanwhile, men kept showing up at all hours of the day and night, sometimes finding their way to the wrong address. Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Minnesota’s Speaker of the House, was one of the Morgan Street residents who answered her door to find strange, obviously confused men on her doorstep.

“It was clear to us that they were getting confused between our house and [the brothel],” Kelliher said.

She said neighbors, waiting anxiously for the big bust, repeatedly called police in July and August.

All 4th Precinct Crime Prevention Specialist Tim Hamnet could tell them was that the ongoing investigation would take some time.

“I got the feeling the residents and the neighbors I spoke with understood that and accepted that,” Hamnet said. “But, again, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating for people.”

Snyder said it was the slow accumulation of evidence that made the difference between shutting down one brothel and breaking up the entire ring.

“We could go shut them down (quickly), but if we don’t get the number one guy he’s going to go set up shop somewhere else,” he explained.

While they waited, Emerson, Kelliher and a few others did what they could.

“We were keeping track of license plates,” Emerson said. “When we’d see people walking down the street (to the brothel), we’d make eye-contact with them and try to make them uncomfortable.”

Snyder wrote in an e-mail that the pressure applied by neighbors “very likely” influenced the ringleaders’ decision to move out of the house in August.

Moving day

Sensing moving day was coming, Emerson did something she said was out of character.

“I don’t think this reflects very well on me,” she confessed, “but I had … sort of a Nancy Drew moment where I looked in their trash when it was garbage day.”

She picked out a cell phone bill, brought it home and started punching numbers into Google. The Internet search connected those numbers to escort services spread across the country, from Wisconsin to California.

After the “For Rent” sign went up in front of the brothel, Emerson peaked in the garbage a second time. She found the lease for another property, as well as notice for eviction from the property for prostitution.

A few days later, the three men operating the Morgan Avenue brothel moved out.

Emerson said she probably went too far in searching through the trash, but said she was motivated by a “panicky feeling” that human trafficking was happening on her block and that the perpetrators might get away. She turned everything over to police immediately, hoping it would speed the investigation.

Snyder said evidence gathered by neighbors probably couldn’t be used in court. Investigators’ “big break” didn’t come until November, when an undercover officer spotted a luggage tag with airline information that led to the identification of one of the women, he said.

Still, authorities praised the Morgan Avenue residents for staying involved in the investigation, and not giving up hope when it dragged on for weeks. In the end, the experience may have brought the neighbors closer together.

“It’s definitely a good example of people on a block being aware, talking to each other … (and) really being the eyes and ears [of a neighborhood],” Kelliher said.

Hamnet said people far too often turn a blind eye to suspicious activity in their neighborhoods.

“It’s our neighborhood together, collectively,” he said, “and if we don’t all pitch in, sustaining a healthy community is going to be very difficult, if not impossible.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com or 436- 4391.