Inside the Controversial Trafficking Sting that Seized a Seattle Sex Worker Site

Earlier this month, Seattle's beloved online sex worker forum thereviewboard.net was seized in an undercover sting after its moderators were accused of sex trafficking. While some have been outraged that this valuable resource was shuttered, court...

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Jan 19 2016, 9:10pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this month, authorities in King County, Washington, seized online sex worker forum thereviewboard.net (TRB) in a sweeping undercover sting. Used by Seattle area sex workers and their clients for advertising, communication, and screening, the site had been up and running for over a decade, and the sudden shutdown was a shock to many of Seattle's sex workers. According to local news outlets, authorities arrested 13 people connected to the site, took 12 migrant women into custody, and shuttered 12 alleged brothels. If you head to thereviewboard.net now, you reach a page that reads, "This website has been seized pursuant to a Promoting Prostitution investigation conducted by the King County Sheriff's Office, the Bellevue Police Department, the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. To provide information relevant to the investigation, or for other inquiries, please contact: Trafficking@kingcounty.gov."

TRB was not exactly a secret to law enforcement, so the seizure has taken many by surprise. Local news site crosscut.com wrote about the forum over a year ago, discussing the site at length with members of the Seattle Police Department's Vice and High Risk Victims unit; the officers quoted essentially said they were too busy to bother with the site, as none of its users were underage or easy to catch. According to court documents obtained by Broadly, the King County Sheriff's Office had been monitoring TRB since 2007. Sex workers familiar with the site aren't quite sure why the cops chose to pull the plug now, though some suspect that a second website—kgirldelights.com—run by a select set of TRB's client base known as "the League," ten of whom were arrested in the sting, had something to do with it. According to King County Sheriff John Urquhart, who gave a press conference about the sting last Thursday, K-Girl Delights was focused specifically on Korean women, often who had come to the United States illegally and who worked out of high-rise luxury apartments—the alleged brothels—in Bellevue, an affluent suburb of Seattle.

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While this sounds bad, there has been some debate about whether police action was appropriate. In a press release condemning TRB's seizure, the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) of Seattle said, "Sex worker communities believe that the site may have been specifically targeted in connection with a raid on a massage parlor where non-native Asians worked or because non-Native Asian sex workers advertised through the website." The statement went on to suggest that the seizure and potential accompanying raid—which Urquhart called a "rescue" in his press conference—would do more harm than good, promoting "blatantly racist and xenophobic" stereotypes about migrant sex workers.

"Many migrant workers in the sex trade, domestic work, and agriculture emigrate and work voluntarily," said Savannah Sly, board president of SWOP-USA. "It's criminalization and stigma of sex work and immigration status that makes [sic] these workers so vulnerable, not the work itself."

Veronica*, a sex worker who has been involved with TRB since its inception, offered to shed some light on the shutdown, the ominously named "League," and the "K-girl" situation. According to Veronica, TRB was launched around 2002, a date corroborated by the cases' court documents. Messages sent in 2015 by the board's moderator, Sigurds Zitars—who went by Tahoe Ted on the forum—and obtained by law enforcement indicated that the board had been operating for "more than 13 years"; TRB was billed as the "#1 review board in the Pacific Northwest."

It was providing an advertising venue for a very suspect situation.

Veronica said the site was a cut above the "adult" listings on backpage.com and other escort sites, as it was more carefully moderated and served as a community forum for sex workers and clients. "It was really a wonderful thing that kept everyone safe," she said. "Girls would be in touch with each other. A lot of people used it as a reference system—have you seen this person and are they safe?—for both sex workers and clients."

But at some point, that resource became polluted. "Around four years ago is when all the K-girl stuff started happening," Veronica said. "Before that, it was almost all independent providers. We spoke on our own behalf, we wrote our own ads, we had our own websites, we decided who we were going to see. And then four years ago, these establishments started showing up. It was sitting funny with everybody."

Certain members of the website, she said, were more obviously enthusiastic about the so-called K-girls than others. "Woodstock organized a lot of the social functions," Veronica said, referring to one man's username. "Sixties, retired. I want to say engineer or carpenter. Just something normal."

Thereviewboard.net currently directs to this message.

The charging documents in the case reveal that Woodstock, whose real name is Donald Mueller, was a member of the League who was found to be running a series of brothels in Bellevue; the buildings were owned by a man named Michael Durnal. Along with Zitars and the others arrested, both men were charged with promoting prostitution in the second degree. Veronica said that Zitars was not a K-girl enthusiast, but charging documents did show that he participated in League social functions and visited a K-girl at least once. He posted a review saying, "I finally saw my first K-girl," and "I would definitely recommend her and plan to see her again."

Zitars seemed to be aware that the K-girl craze was risky. According to the charging documents, he told undercover detectives that TRB and the League were different organizations, and that he attempted to limit ads for Asian sex workers on TRB to avoid law enforcement scrutiny. Nevertheless, Veronica, who characterized Tahoe Ted as a decent human being, still blamed his tolerance of the League for TRB's shutdown. "Up until his blind-eye turning to the K-girl situation, Ted helped facilitate a safe and fair space for hobbyists and providers," Veronica said. "To say he 'promoted prostitution' seems semantically inaccurate to me. The girls (minus K-girls) on that site were there wholly under their own will and one hundred percent in control of what was happening in their practices. I'm angry at Ted for allowing this to happen."

Mueller and Durnal's arrest warrants, however, basically confirm all of Veronica's worst suspicions. Mueller, who had made his living as an illegal pot grower until Washington's legal market ran him under, decided to turn his efforts to pimping instead. According to court documents, he started when a prostitute asked him to rent her an apartment to work out of, offering him a cut of her earnings. From this, he built his business into what authorities are deeming a full-scale brothel.

The charging documents go on to outline his business plan: "He rents an apartment for use as a brothel. He is responsible for providing the venue to include all associated costs such as utilities, furniture, paying for the escort ads, and arranging the dates to include a screening process for clients. The rate for full-service sex is $300 for an hour. Donald keeps $100 per date and his sex worker keeps the other $200 including any tips. He cycles different Korean prostitute providers already in the U.S. in/out of his brothels about every 5-6 weeks. Donald is a self-proclaimed human trafficker."

Though Mueller's activities seem to be a clear-cut case of sex trafficking, Sly's words of caution still ring true: It is entirely possible for anyone, of any origin, and from any economic situation to choose sex work. However, the court documents show that Mueller and Durnal actively recruited Korean women they knew to be in compromising debt. "Mueller sought out 'young Korean' prostitute providers because, in his experience, they got themselves into credit card debt thereby forcing themselves into the life of prostitution to get relief from the debt."

It was white dudes taking advantage of women who didn't have a lot of options.

According to the court documents, Durnal believed that "the Korean girls working as prostitutes at area brothels are doing so because they are indebted to loan sharks [in Korea]. If the girls do not repay the debts they owe, members of their family will be killed." He also said, according to the documents, that "the girls have learned to be good 'actresses' in order to be able to have sex with up to ten men a day that they do not actually desire to be intimate with."

The TRB case illustrates the difficulty of determining which sex workers are in the trade by choice and which are victims of trafficking; both Zitars and Veronica claimed the K-girls "wanted to be [there]." In correspondence with a woman reproduced in the court documents, Mueller discusses plans to "go into business together," offering to arrange passage into the US and help her with her immigration status. The overall impression is that she is actively seeking to enter the business. However, though Veronica seemed to agree with Zitars and Sly that many K-girls came to the US with the express purpose of doing sex work, she cautioned that "they may have chosen it initially, but then they're stuck. No car, no license, no work visa, no friends, and no language skills. In this case, it was white dudes taking advantage of women who didn't have a lot of options, who maybe were 'OK' [with] seeing three to six dudes a day... but not really. They weren't happy."

While Veronica expressed frustration with law enforcement for shutting down TRB entirely, she admitted it need to go, saying, "I would have shut it down because it was providing an advertising venue for a very suspect situation. But who do they think they've saved? Certainly none of my friends. I don't condone any [third party]—particularly men—profiting from sex work done by women, even if it's consensual. However, it is the laws in place that help facilitate and perpetuate the inception of the very thing law enforcement claims to being trying to prevent."

Her interim solution? Start a new review board, this time run by sex workers themselves.

*Name has been changed.