|TRENTON – Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman today announced arrests of a Lakewood man and four male associates on charges of human trafficking for allegedly operating brothels in Lakewood that were part of a network of brothels in New Jersey, New York and other states that trafficked women from Mexico to the United States to work as prostitutes. The alleged ringleader’s girlfriend also was arrested for assisting him in operating the brothels.
Acting Attorney General Hoffman made the announcement at the Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton with Director Elie Honig of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and Special Agent in Charge Andrew M. McLees of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations in Newark. The charges are the result of an ongoing investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) that began in early 2012 called “Operation No Boundaries.”
The alleged “owner” of the Lakewood brothels, Jose Cruz Romero-Flores, 38, aka “Chato,” was arrested on Thursday, July 11, at his apartment on River Avenue in Lakewood on charges of first-degree human trafficking, second-degree promoting organized street crime, and third-degree promoting prostitution. The first-degree human trafficking charge carries a sentence of 20 years to life in state prison. Romero-Flores allegedly operated several Lakewood brothels, including ones on Bellinger Street and Chestnut Street, but only one, at 1093 Brook Road, was operating at the time of the arrests.
It is alleged that Romero-Flores and other brothel owners in New Jersey, New York and additional surrounding states work together as a loose network to bring women into the U.S. illegally, primarily from Mexico but also from other Latin American countries, and introduce them into a life of prostitution. Many women are tricked into believing they are going to the U.S. to work as house cleaners or babysitters. In other cases, they are coerced into going to the U.S. to work the “circuit” of brothels and ordered to send any money they earn back to Mexico.
“We have taken down a major human trafficking and prostitution ring involving brothels in Lakewood,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “The brothels allegedly run by Romero-Flores were part of a network of brothels that exploited Mexican women who were tricked or coerced into illegally entering the U.S., where they have endured a miserable life of high-volume prostitution. We’re making it a top priority to arrest human traffickers and rescue their victims from the shadows, where these crimes occur.”
“We continue to target and investigate large-scale human trafficking networks operating in New Jersey and beyond,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We urge any victims or others with information about these human trafficking rings to contact us confidentially.”
“Human trafficking cases have been and continue to be a major priority for HSI,” said Special Agent in Charge Andrew McLees of HSI Newark. “HSI’s ability to reach beyond our borders into foreign nations where human trafficking is initiated and to partner with our state and local authorities creates a formidable strategy that grants law enforcement an advantage over those who deprive victims of their human rights. We are proud to stand next to our law enforcement partners with the State of New Jersey to announce a great success against this despicable crime.”
Multiple victims were rescued and additional victims are being sought in the ongoing investigation. Acting Attorney General Hoffman noted that the Division of Criminal Justice maintains a 24-hour NJ Human Trafficking Hotline 877-986-7534 for victims and others to report information confidentially.
The following four men were arrested on July 11, the same day Romero-Flores was arrested:
Felix Rios-Martinez, 47, of Lakewood, was charged with first-degree conspiracy to commit human trafficking, second-degree promoting organized street crime, and third-degree promoting prostitution.
Raul Romero-Castillo, 30, of Lakewood, was charged with first-degree conspiracy to commit human trafficking, second-degree promoting organized street crime, and third-degree promoting prostitution.
Santos Lazaero Flores-Cruz, 58, of Union City, was charged with second-degree conspiracy to commit human trafficking, second-degree promoting organized street crime, and third-degree promoting prostitution.
- Haliro Bueno, 21, of Lakewood, was charged with second-degree conspiracy to commit human trafficking, second-degree promoting organized street crime, and third-degree promoting prostitution.
Romero-Flores’s girlfriend, Odulia Bedran Trejo, 22, was arrested on Sunday, July 14, at Romero-Flores’s apartment on charges of second-degree promoting organized street crime and third-degree promoting prostitution. The girlfriend and the four male associates allegedly assisted Romero-Flores by watching the brothels, driving women and clients to and from the brothels, and carrying out other tasks. The girlfriend also allegedly helped to find women for the brothels. All six defendants are Mexican nationals who are in the U.S. illegally.
The arrests mark the first time that charges have been filed in New Jersey under new omnibus human trafficking legislation that was signed by Governor Chris Christie in May and that took effect on July 1. The law created new crimes of human trafficking, including the offense of first-degree conspiracy to commit human trafficking, and enhanced penalties for such crimes under New Jersey’s Criminal Code.
On July 11, detectives and agents executed search warrants for the brothel on Brook Road and Romero-Flores’s home, as well as several vehicles, seizing about $5,800 in cash, identification documents including Mexican passports and driver’s licenses, cell phones, laptops, and ledgers that listed the names of women who worked in the brothels and dates they were scheduled to work.
The investigation revealed that the brothel owners in the network pay “coyotes” to smuggle women into the U.S. from Mexico. The women, in many instances, are pressured to repay those who paid for them to be smuggled into the U.S. Once women are brought into the “circuit,” they are moved from brothel to brothel, so clients of each brothel have greater variety. Romero-Flores allegedly ordered the women who worked for him to meet quotas. It is alleged that it was not uncommon for women who worked for him to service over 100 clients or “johns” in a six-day week, from Monday through Saturday, and sometimes they serviced as many as 40 or more johns in a single day. Clients paid $30 for each sexual encounter. Clients came to the brothels or were serviced in “outcalls” in which prostitutes were driven to the client’s location. It is believed that several dozen women worked in the brothels run by Romero-Flores over the course of the investigation, but a smaller number of women worked for him at any given time.
Romero-Flores allegedly wired money derived from his brothels to Mexico, where he owns properties. The women returned at the end of the week to other residences, usually in the Queens, N.Y., area or the Union City area of New Jersey. Romero-Flores allegedly routinely drove to Queens, N.Y., to pick up women to work in his brothels.
Detective Eric Barnes of the Division of Criminal Justice and Special Agent Carlos A. Morales of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations were the lead investigators. The investigation was conducted for the Division of Criminal Justice by Detective Barnes and all of the detectives in the Division’s Human Trafficking Unit and Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau Central Unit, under the supervision of Lt. Lisa Shea, Sgt. Noelle Holl, Sgt. Andrea Salvatini, Deputy Attorney General Russell Curley and Deputy Attorney General Christopher Romanyshyn, Chief of the Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau. Special Agent Morales conducted the investigation for HSI under the supervision of Group Supervisor John Fitch. The New Jersey State Police Investigations Section, the New Jersey Human Services Police, the Lakewood Police Department, and the Brick Township Police Department provided invaluable assistance in the investigation.
The six defendants are being held in the Ocean County Jail with bail set at $1 million for Romero-Flores and $100,000 for each of the other defendants. All of the defendants are also the subject of detainers filed by U.S. immigration authorities.
The charge of first-degree human trafficking carries a sentence of 20 years to life in state prison and a criminal fine of up to $200,000. The charge of first-degree conspiracy to commit human trafficking carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison and a fine of up to $200,000. Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000, while third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Because they are indictable offenses, the charges will be presented to a grand jury for potential indictment.
During his tenure as New Jersey Attorney General, U.S. Senator Jeffrey S. Chiesa formed the new Human Trafficking Unit in the Division of Criminal Justice, which was responsible for conducting this investigation with HSI and the Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Unit. As Attorney General, Senator Chiesa also issued a directive to all state, county and local law enforcement agencies in New Jersey to enhance efforts to investigate and prosecute human trafficking crimes. The directive mandated new training to help police identify and rescue victims of sex- and labor-related human trafficking. That training, which is now in place, enables investigators to recognize the telltale indicators of human trafficking when investigating other offenses.
The fight against human trafficking remains a top priority under the leadership of Acting Attorney General Hoffman, and additional takedowns of criminals involved in human trafficking are anticipated in the coming months.