Investigators shut down sex trafficking at Nicollet Avenue apartment

A 21-year-old man is charged with three counts of sex trafficking at a Nicollet Avenue rental building.

A 21-year-old man is facing sex trafficking charges following an investigation at the 3600 block of Nicollet Avenue.

The charges in Hennepin County District Court allege that Lee Edward Smith Jr., a resident of the Folwell neighborhood, engaged in sex trafficking of three women between May and August.

A tip about a Backpage dot-com ad that appeared to sell sex with a juvenile woman led investigators to a rental building at 3635 Nicollet Ave., according to the criminal complaint.

According to the complaint:  Police intercepted a man leaving the building Aug. 14, who said he paid $100 for sex at the residence. Police obtained a search warrant, arrested Smith and interviewed three women. One woman said Smith and his girlfriend helped arrange “dates” for her, taking half of her earnings and providing her with crack. Police viewed her phone and found that Smith had made threats of violence against her. The complaint said a second woman who reported up to five “dates” in a day appeared to have “cognitive delays and is likely a vulnerable adult.” The woman told investigators she “kept telling him I don’t want to do it,” but said she was afraid of Smith, who threatened that he would come and find her if she left. A third woman who was reluctant to betray Smith said he made her post prostitution ads and perform acts of prostitution.

A hearing in the case is Sept. 25.

“A lot of us nearby were very angry,” said one Kingfield resident who declined to print her name.

She said some neighbors kept an eye on comings-and-goings in the building, providing photos, videos and license plate numbers to police.

“It’s a great neighborhood. Kingfield has phenomenal neighbors. We’re diligent, we’re watching. I think that continued vigilance and people getting involved in the community really makes a difference,” she said. “…I’m glad that police stepped in, and I wonder what the landlord did in response.”

Landlord Aron Khoury said he’s owned rental properties for several  years and never dealt with police action at his buildings before. In this case, he said he rented to a tenant (not Smith) with a criminal record last April.

“This is the first time I’d relaxed my applicant criteria, and it was shocking to see the result of it,” he said. “…I live in the neighborhood. … That’s not the community that I’m looking to build.”

Khoury said he wanted to give the tenant a fair chance at a housing opportunity, and the tenant’s behavior never made him suspect illegal activity. After this experience, he said he would think hard before renting to a felon, and would consider improving surveillance and security.

He praised the Minneapolis Police Department for the quick response.

“I assure you that I have every intention of finding future tenants that will bring a positive, safe and welcomed presence to the neighborhood,” he wrote in a letter to representatives of the Kingfield Neighborhood Association.