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article imageHuman trafficking in suburbia? Hubby caught, wife still at large Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Jun 23, 2013 in Crime
South San Francisco - "Little boxes, Little boxes," as the 1962 song goes written by Malvina Reynolds, describes a life that day to day can be much the same for a suburb on the outskirts of any city.
And, maybe because of that way of life, it is why a plain-ordinary suburb can be vulnerable. Ironically, for this story, Reynolds' song was inspired while visiting this particular area, only a short drive south of San Francisco.
Busy with commuters, amid well-manicured lawns, walkways and convenience to Starbucks and Trader Joe's, 'The Archstone' complex next to the South San Francisco BART station would be an unlikely place for a prostitution ring.
Yet, as reported by the San Francisco Examiner on June 13, law enforcement busted a prostitution operation which was coordinated by a husband and wife team referred to as "Bob and Coco." The husband, Zhi Liu, age 49, was arrested. While wife, Wei Gou, age 51, was not present at the time of the raid.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe's office was pleased to tell this reporter on assignment for the Peninsula Progress, that bail for Liu was increased to $200,000. "This is a very serious case," said Chief Deputy District Attorney Karen Guidotti. When the Peninsula Progress called on Wednesday June 19, to inquire for more details, Guidotti noted that Liu was to attend hearing that afternoon. She explained why the case was serious. "This is not simply prostitution, said Guidotti, this involves human trafficking." She also noted that by increasing the bail, prosecutors seek to keep the suspect from taking flight in an attempt to leave the area.
Guidotti is hoping Liu will be sentenced to the fullest extent of the law. The purpose of the hearing that day was to determine whether or not the funds to post bail were legitimate. "any money from illegal activity is not allowed to be used as bail," said Guidotti. Property bonds (loan from a house) is typical. "But for that property to be used in bail, it must not be involved in any illegal activity," she added. Guidotti hoped that because of Liu's extensive operation, there would be no "clean" collateral available. Yet, it looks as if a legitimate property bond will be available through a friend of Liu's that has no connection to his business or any illegal activities.
It is this type of clever maneuvering that can allow this type of prostitution to slip away. Guidotti emphasized the distinction. Human trafficking is when people are held against their will to work in some form of service or labor. "Cases such as this are rampant in larger cities like San Francisco and Oakland."
"But it does happen in smaller communities like South City," said Guidotti. Fortunately, the husband and wife team had only been operating their illicit enterprise from McLellan Drive for about a month. The Archstone complex is among the newest of dwellings to be built in an area that until just recently had been orchid and flower fields for the San Francisco Peninsula's flower-growing industry. Flowers grown along the Peninsula were a market staple product for decades. Yet as generations pass on and population in the San Francisco Bay Area continues to increase, the demand for land to build housing has changed much of the landscape. New expanding housing and shopping-office complexes are creating new communities that reflect contemporary needs. Such as for example, the need for commuters to be close to a rapid transit system like BART - the Bay Area Rapid Transit.
The Archstone with its 750 to over 1200 square foot units offer residents all the commodities and amenities of modern living. Stylish one to two-bedroom floor plans are moderately priced for rent in the area. In a place where rent can be high, these units start in price at $2,300 and up. The people who live here are hard-working, responsible. Reviews about The Archstone on Yelp are mixed. Yet, with so many people in the area commuting back and forth to work, this might be why a sinister operation was able to slip in?
"We are getting better at detecting these things," she said. Guidotti thanked the South San Francisco Police Dept. for their work with local hotels, especially around the SFO airport area, in raising awareness of human trafficking.
Sergeant Bruce McPhillips of the SSFPD Police Community Relations division noted that "The South San Francisco City Council passed a local municipal code in March requiring hotel employees to collect specific personal information from all guests of the hotels and provide that information to the police upon request."
"Our Sergeant Bill Schwartz, he said, has been designated as the lead investigator in Human Trafficking cases and has provided training to private industry as well as other local, State and Federal law enforcement agencies. Sergeant Schwartz has testified as an expert in human trafficking locally and throughout the United States. Because of his dedication and tenacity, South San Francisco is setting the standard for these type investigations.
Locally, McPhillips also said, "the Planning Sergeant (Scott Campbell) and I have met with Hotel Managers at their quarterly meetings to train them on the clues to look out for relating to human trafficking."
Guidotti said that one 'sign' that stands out as a clue that human trafficking is going on is confinement and a lack of freedom for the workers. “Are workers allowed to come and go freely?” Guidotti also said that the use of fear tactics to keep workers in an indentured servitude situation is the usual indication. It is not clear how Liu was able to obtain a unit at The Archstone to conduct business. Yet authorizes point out that another characteristic of human trafficking is frequent relocation of workers and centers of operation. “We know the operation was in San Bruno near SFO in February and by June they were in South San Francisco,” said Guidotti.
"Our Department has made several arrests and has broken up at least two human trafficking rings operating in the City of South San Francisco," said McPhillips.
As reported by the SF Examiner, the raid was part of a human sex-trafficking sting that included busts of three more under-the-radar brothels in the Sacramento area. In February, the U.S. Department of Justice learned that young Chinese women were being rotated in and out of brothels in the Boston, New York, Sacramento and San Mateo County areas, along with China.
McPhillips sees the SSF city ordinance as vital. "This municipal code, he said, is just one more tool for the South San Francisco Police Department to combat illegal human trafficking." Liu will be brought before the Superior Court later this month and on July 17 there will be a preliminary hearing of the case. Meanwhile, "wife Coco" is still at large. "Agents of the Dept. of Justice are working hard to find her and bring her to trial," said Guidotti.
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