BISMARCK – A man and woman face eight federal charges for allegedly enticing women from California to work in brothels in North Dakota’s Oil Patch, according to court documents made public Wednesday.
Trina Nguyen and Loc Bao Tran are accused in U.S. District Court of operating a commercial sex business in Dickinson while they were out on bond for charges related to a similar prostitution business in Minot.
U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said Nguyen and Tran are the first arrests in Operation Seize the Day, which is an ongoing joint investigation with the FBI and the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
A federal court affidavit alleges that Nguyen, 32, and Tran, 32, both from California, conspired to transport women from California to engage in prostitution in North Dakota between September 2012 and March 2014.
They also face extortion charges stemming from alleged high-interest loans made to some of the women that involved intimidation and threats to at least one woman who couldn’t repay the money.
According to court records:
In summer 2013, the Minot Police Department and the FBI investigated a massage parlor in Minot known as The Mann’s Club, which authorities say Nguyen and Tran operated as a house of prostitution.
During a May 2013 search of The Mann’s Club, also referred to as TMC, agents observed bulk quantities of condoms and sexual lubricants, handwritten notes and ledgers describing pricing schemes and client scheduling, as well as an automatic teller machine. Agents also recovered a menu listing services such as “handalation” and “facialation.”
Nguyen and Tran were charged in Ward County District Court with human trafficking as a result of that investigation.
Nguyen was released on bond in June 2013. Tran also was released on bond, fled, and was arrested in January 2014 when re-entering the United States from a flight that originated in Vietnam, court records say.
In fall 2013, FBI agents received information that Nguyen and Tran may have opened locations in Dickinson and Watford City.
Both were advertised online and claimed to be massage parlors or relaxation spas, but featured photographs of minimally dressed Asian women and a disclaimer that undercover law enforcement should not attempt to enter, court records say.
Analysis by the BCI showed the website is operated and hosted in London by a company that exclusively designs websites for “escort services.”
Law enforcement encountered Nguyen again on Jan. 26 when Dickinson police received a 911 call for an unresponsive female in the street. Nguyen was found in possession of meth and taken back into law enforcement custody.
In February, law enforcement served an eviction notice at Nguyen’s address of 2646 Dakota Boulevard in Dickinson and noticed drug paraphernalia inside the residence.
After obtaining a federal search warrant, investigators found personal and financial documents, identification cards and passports for Nguyen, Tran and others. Agents observed many of the same items recovered from the club in Minot, including condoms and sexual lubricants, thousands of business cards for TMC in Minot, an ATM and a similar “club policies” board.
The federal criminal complaint alleges that Nguyen and Tran reopened The Mann’s Club in Dickinson while they were out on bond, leasing a property there starting in July 2013.
Several women interviewed by the FBI said they were hired by Nguyen and Tran after they responded to ads in California newspapers seeking workers to perform massage.
“Some of the women who worked in North Dakota for Nguyen and Tran indicated they were persuaded and enticed into traveling to North Dakota by the promise of being able to earn large amounts of money,” FBI Special Agent Ryan O’Neil wrote in an affidavit for probable cause for a criminal complaint.
Travel records show that the women, who all lived in California, traveled to North Dakota in 2012 and 2013, sometimes paying their own way and other times Nguyen paid their expenses.
Investigators also allege that Nguyen and/or Tran engaged in extortion, targeting some of their employees.
One victim arranged to borrow several thousand dollars from Nguyen and Tran while working for them as a prostitute in North Dakota in 2013. She signed a promissory note to obtain the money, requiring interest payment of 10 percent each month. The note was written in English, which the woman signed although she could not read or understand English.
When the woman was unable to make further payments, an associate of Nguyen’s went to her house and said if she didn’t pay him, he would send someone else and “she would have a headache,” the court records say.
The court affidavit also mentions Williston, but the extent of alleged operations in Williston or Watford City is not clear from the documents.
Nguyen and Tran are each charged with the following:
- Interstate transport of individual for prostitution.
- Conspiracy to commit interstate transport of individual for prostitution.
- Persuade, induce, entice and coerce interstate travel for prostitution.
- Conspiracy to persuade, induce, entice and coerce interstate travel for prostitution.
- Interstate transportation in aid of racketeering enterprise.
- Conspiracy to commit interstate transportation in aid of racketeering enterprise.
- Collection of extensions of credit by extortionate means.
- Conspiracy to collect extensions of credit by extortionate means
Purdon said the use of federal racketeering charges is “extremely rare” in North Dakota.
“We’re going to use every tool in our toolbox when it comes to fighting allegations of sex trafficking in the Bakken oil region,” Purdon said.
The human trafficking charges in Ward County were dismissed earlier this month a day before the cases were set to go to trial in Minot. The prosecution’s motion to dismiss said the U.S. Attorney’s Office had assumed jurisdiction of the cases.
Nguyen made an initial court appearance in federal court Wednesday and pleaded not guilty to the charges
Fargo defense attorney Jeff Bredahl said he requests that prospective jurors keep an open mind, and reminded people hearing about the allegations that Nguyen is presumed innocent.
“She is innocent at all stages of this case until it is in the jury’s hands,” Bredahl said.
Tran and Nguyen are being held in the Burleigh County Jail.
A message seeking comment from the federal public defender’s office, which is representing Tran, was not returned Wednesday.