The long-absent co-defendant in a Minot human trafficking case pleaded "not guilty" to the Class A felony charge at an arraignment at the Ward County Courthouse in Minot Thursday afternoon.
Loc Bao Tran, 32, had been missing since a warrant for his arrest was issued May 29, 2013, but was located in Denver at the end of January and extradited back to North Dakota to face his charges. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both.
A Class A felony has since been increased to a fine of $20,000 but the new penalty won't be applied to cases prior to the change.
A portion of this building was used until May 29, 2013, as a men’s health spa and unlicensed massage parlor that police allege also traded in sex and harbored Vietnamese who knew very little English to provide those services.
Tran and Trina Phuong Nguyen are both accused of running a Minot business that offered prostitution services from women who couldn't speak English and lived on the upper floor of the business.
The place was called "The Mann Club" and operated on Third Street Northeast in the same building as a local brewpub until the club was shut down on May 29. The company was registered in the state as a men's health club or spa and advertised itself online as a massage parlor that offered massage and "anything else," according to Det. David Goodman of the Minot Police Department, who testified at the Thursday hearing.
On the website BackPage.com ads ran with headlines like "New HOT ASIAN UlTiMaTe ReLaXaTiOn EvErYtHiNg & AnYtHiNg 21," and featured young, attractive Asian women in various states of undress, according to Goodman and an affidavit filed in the case.
In person, though, the space, which now operates as something else, boasted no signage other than the initials "T.M.C." printed on a small piece of paper posted to the door. All of the windows were covered in sheets or had closed curtains.
Goodman testified that police first learned of the operation from various chatter around town. Soon they set up surveillance.
"We obtained pole cameras," Goodman said. "We had those pole cameras installed on poles to the northwest and northeast of the building to cover both entrances to the building ... We had one officer watch that video. He observed many men coming and going from the business. We also asked him to watch the women and observe if the women appeared to be coming freely to and from the business and he did not see that. He saw one female leave during that one-month time with two suitcases."
Of those men, Goodman said that they spoke to four who are all labeled as "John Doe," with a number based on the order of contact. The first of those was a Canadian man traveling through town.
"I had seen on one of the camera views, I saw him arrive at the business so we went to the business and conducted surveillance and waited for him to leave. We then made contact in northeast Minot," Goodman said. "He stated that he had stopped for a massage. He was driving from California to his home in Canada. He had found this on the BackPage site. He said that he received a massage and that it went further than that."
He testified further that the extras provided were labeled in massage-like terms, but had sexual equivalents with the third and highest level of service being full intercourse.
He said that police had seized, among other things, a "bulk roll of condoms," computers, photos of the business and several digital video recorders. When questioned about actions of a sexual nature being observed on the recorded video or on the computer, he said that those elements remained an ongoing investigation. He testified that some cameras were mounted in the private rooms.
Once a customer entered the business they were led from that first room into a second, secured entrance that led to a locker room where they were asked to disrobe, deposit their personal effects into a locker, and then given a robe before being led to a shower area where they had to shower before entering the massage rooms.
More details were covered in an earlier Minot Daily News story from Sept. 13, 2013, which is archived on the newspaper's website (http://bit.ly/P5QUB5).
During the testimony there were points of confusion that elicited silent laughter from Tran, who also at one point put his head on the table. The behavior was distinctive because he otherwise spoke clearly and succinctly into his microphone when asked a question.
The laughter seemed to come from confusion over his connections to other people at the business. Goodman had allegedly been told by Tran at various points that Nguyen, the other defendant, had been his "wife" and at other times his "girlfriend." Another point was that he had referred to one of the women allegedly used to provide the sexual services as his "sister," but she turned out not to be his sister by blood, but his "street sister" as Goodman had put it.
Because Tran's appointed attorney, Robert Wade Martin of the Minot location of the state Public Defenders office, was out of town for the hearing. Tran was instead temporarily represented by Tom Gunderson, also of the Public Defender's office.
During cross examination of Goodman, Gunderson questioned the amount of evidence the police had that could connect Tran to actually dealing in sex trade rather than just running the business. Gunderson argued that while the business was registered in his name and other documents reveal he owned the business, the police are only "inferring" from these facts that he elicited women to perform sexual acts.
"Did he say he did any recruiting?" Gunderson asked.
"He stated that the recruiting was handled through his sister," Goodman said.
"But he did not recruit anybody himself?" Gunderson asked.
"He claimed that he did not," Goodman said.
Questions and answers continued but Goodman continued to repeat that Tran was known to be in the business and that documents had his names on them. Gunderson continued to question how the evidence of him owning a business equate to him actually trafficking humans for sex trade.
Tran's pretrial conderence is scheduled for May 14 at 9:30 a.m.