|TRENTON – Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman announced that a Lakewood man and four male associates have pleaded guilty to 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 men were charged last year in a joint investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice and ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) called “Operation No Boundaries.”
These men pleaded guilty late yesterday before Superior Court Judge Wendel E. Daniels in Ocean County:
- Jose Cruz Romero-Flores, 39, aka “Chato,” the “owner” of the Lakewood brothels, pleaded guilty to second-degree conspiracy to facilitate human trafficking. The state will recommend that he be sentenced to five years in state prison.
- Felix Rios-Martinez, 48, of Lakewood, pleaded guilty to second-degree conspiracy to facilitate human trafficking. The state will recommend that he be sentenced to five years in state prison.
- Raul Romero-Castillo, 31, of Lakewood, pleaded guilty to second-degree conspiracy to facilitate human trafficking. The state will recommend that he be sentenced to five years in state prison.
- Santos Lazaero Flores-Cruz, 59, of Union City, pleaded guilty to third-degree promoting prostitution. The state will recommend that he be sentenced to three years in state prison.
- Haliro Bueno, 22, of Lakewood, pleaded guilty to third-degree promoting prostitution. The state will recommend that he be sentenced to three years in state prison.
Deputy Attorney General Cassandra Serentino took the guilty pleas for the Division of Criminal Justice Human Trafficking Unit. Judge Daniels scheduled sentencing for the defendants for Aug. 7.
Romero-Flores operated several Lakewood brothels, including ones on Bellinger Street and Chestnut Street. At the time the defendants were arrested in July 2013, he was operating a single brothel at 1093 Brook Road in Lakewood. The joint investigation revealed that Romero-Flores and other brothel owners in New Jersey, New York and additional surrounding states worked 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 were tricked into believing they were going to the U.S. to work as house cleaners or babysitters. In other cases, they were coerced into going to the U.S. to work the “circuit” of brothels and were ordered to send any money they earned back to Mexico.
“This case fits a classic pattern of international sex trafficking, in which deception and coercion are used to enslave women in a horrific life of prostitution in the U.S., where they must service up to 40 clients each day,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “Once the victims are under the sway of the traffickers, they are powerless to escape. We are partnering across all levels of law enforcement to apprehend sex traffickers and rescue their victims from what amounts to modern day slavery.”
“We have worked hard not merely to raise awareness of this degrading crime, but also to arrest and prosecute those who commit it,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We will continue to pursue all leads to catch sex traffickers and put them behind bars where they belong.”
“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 in this investigation. Acting Attorney General Hoffman noted that the Division of Criminal Justice maintains a 24-hour NJ Human Trafficking Hotline 855-END-NJ-HT (855-363-6548) for victims and others to report information confidentially.
The four male associates assisted Romero-Flores by watching the brothels, driving women and clients to and from the brothels, and carrying out other tasks. All of the defendants are Mexican nationals who were in the U.S. illegally. They have been held in jail in lieu of bail since their arrests, and all also are the subject of federal detainers.
Charges remain pending against Romero-Flores’s girlfriend, Odulia Bedran Trejo, 22. She allegedly assisted him in operating the brothels and helping find women to work in the brothels. She was arrested on July 14, 2013, at Romero-Flores’s apartment on charges of second-degree promoting organized street crime and third-degree promoting prostitution. She is presumed innocent until proven guilty. On July 11, 2013, 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 the dates they were scheduled to work.
The investigation revealed that brothel owners in the network paid “coyotes” to smuggle women into the U.S. from Mexico. The women, in many instances, were pressured to repay those who paid for them to be smuggled into the U.S. Once women were brought into the “circuit,” they were moved from brothel to brothel, so clients of each brothel had greater variety. Romero-Flores ordered the women who worked for him to meet quotas. 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. Romero-Flores 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 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 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, Deputy Attorneys General Kristen Harberg and Annmarie Taggart, who are the Deputy Chiefs of the Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau, Deputy Attorney General Lauren Scarpa, who is Chief of the Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau, and Deputy Attorney General Christopher Romanyshyn, who is Deputy Director of the Division of Criminal Justice. 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 and the Brick Township Police provided valuable assistance.