For human trafficking atrocities
THE owner of the former Blue House Lounge that held young women hostage for prostitution will spend the rest of her life behind bars for her human trafficking atrocities.
Song Ja Cha, 71, was sentenced to life imprisonment by Judge Dean Pregerson yesterday in District Court. Her co-defendants and former employees, Saknin Weria and Freda Eseun, also were sentenced, but instead were given three years of supervised release along with 100 hours of community service.
Four and a half years ago, victims were rescued from Cha’s business where she employed and forced them to sell drinks and have sex with customers in VIP rooms.
Cha was found guilty on all 20 counts of an indictment against her during an eight-day trial in February 2011. She was convicted of sex trafficking; conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; attempted sex trafficking; coercion and enticement to travel in interstate or foreign commerce for prostitution; and transportation of a minor for prostitution.
Court documents state that from 2004 through January 2008, Cha and others in the conspiracy recruited poor, young and uneducated women from the island of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia, by promising them high-paying jobs. Yet, when the women arrived, Cha stripped them of their passports and used a variety of means to compel the victims to engage in prostitution, the U.S. Attorney’s Office stated in a press release.
Cha instilled fear in the victims by making threats of arrest, manipulation of debt, withholding food, and using other workers to monitor the young women to be sure they wouldn’t escape. Victims also had testified in court that Cha used the fact that police officers frequented the lounge to make the victims believe she was “connected” and could have them arrested and jailed, the release added.
"Human traffickers trick, lie and coerce young women with a promise of work in a legitimate job," stated U.S. Attorney Alicia Limtiaco in the release. "In reality, these young women lose their freedom and are horribly demeaned by the sexual acts that they are forced to perform. Defendant Cha preyed on vulnerable victims and used threats and abuse to force them into prostitution. The jury's verdict makes clear that sex trafficking schemes will not be tolerated. We will continue to find traffickers and hold them accountable for their crimes. Today’s life sentence ... sends the critical message that human trafficking is a crime that violates the very core and dignity of a human being and that traffickers face severe punishment.”
Before imposing Cha’s sentence, Judge Pregerson took a moment to read one of the victims’ impact statements who equated her experience at Blue House “like living in a prison cell.” The victim expressed hopelessness and misery for the horrible things Cha had done, stating, “I want Cha to get what she deserves. ... I cry over the fact that mama-san (Cha) ruined my reputation.” The victim also wrote about her uncertainty of whether she would ever be able to have children after all the birth control shots she was forced by Cha to take.
Judge Pregerson stated that while the impact victim statements were “very important to the court,” they had not been made public. Cha’s acts were “not far removed from slavery,” he said. “The defendant owned the bodies of these girls.”
About $200,000 in seized funds was ordered to be used toward restitution for the 10 victims in the Blue House case.
"The sexual exploitation of vulnerable individuals is an affront to fundamental rights and will not be tolerated in our country. The defendant preyed on the hopes and dreams of these young victims, forcing them into a life of prostitution," Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, stated in the press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. "The Department of Justice is committed to vigorously prosecuting the trafficking of human beings to uphold the rights of those held in modern-day slavery, whether for labor or for sexual exploitation."
As for Eseun and Weria, who signed plea agreements in May 2008 admitting to conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, trial attorney Jared Fishman told the court that although they are guilty, they also were victims of Cha. Fishman indicated that Eseun and Weria’s testimonies were critical in obtaining the conviction against Cha.
The two worked for Cha as translators to communicate threats to other employees and to monitor them.
Both women tearfully expressed their apologies to the court during their sentencing and asked forgiveness. Weria’s 6-year-old daughter – who was conceived upon her employment at Blue House – was present in the courtroom. Weria told the judge how she has since changed her life and even became an active participant in church.
“I think it’s important that you see yourself worthy of forgiving,” Judge Pregerson stated. “Turn the page and look upon yourself as a good person.”
Cha, meanwhile, addressed the court without expressing any apologies toward the victims.
“I will accept any sentence,” she said through a Korean interpreter. “But, I would like to tell you about the day I was locked up.”
Cha went on to accuse her former attorney, Howard Trapp, and former interpreter, “Mr. Yoon,” of stealing from her and failing to provide for her as she awaited trial. She said she became suspicious of them as she noticed they were withdrawing from her bank account almost every other day. She also pointed out that Mr. Yoon was a gambler.
Cha stated she did not understand that despite being of good mental note, her attorney said she should be put on suicide watch. The judge told her to make an appeal on the issue of theft allegations.
Subsequent to the sentencing, Cha’s appointed public defender Joseph Razzano made a motion to withdraw as counsel, informing the court that he would not participate in the appeal. He also relayed to the judge that Cha has requested to serve her time at a federal prison in Dublin, Calif., where she has family nearby.