Federal authorities on Wednesday announced the arrests of three people for allegedly running an exclusive brothel ring in Massachusetts and Virginia that served a high-end clientele from politicians and pharmaceutical executives to scientists and government contractors with security clearances.
According to a stunning 67-page affidavit filed in US District Court in Boston, the network has operated brothels since at least the summer of 2020 out of upscale apartments in Cambridge, Watertown, and the Washington D.C. suburbs.
Men seeking to purchase sex through the network had to go through a lengthy process that involved background checks and references, according to the affidavit. Customers would contact one of two websites, which falsely claimed to be advertising nude models for photography that did not involve sex for cash, authorities allege.
Charged are Han A. Lee, 41, also known as Hana Lee, whom prosecutors described as the ringleader and who currently lives in Cambridge, and two alleged accomplices, Junmyung Lee, 30, of Dedham, and James Lee, 68, of Torrance, Calif.
Here are some key points from the affidavit, which detailed how the illicit operation was run and the investigation that uncovered it.
How the feds broke up the alleged ring
In the spring, law enforcement was tipped off to the ring by a confidential source who indicated that a woman she referred to as her “sister” was planning to open “a shop” in New Jersey.
“Investigators understood ‘shop’ to mean brothel or commercial sex business and ‘sister’ to not mean a relative but instead a business associate involved in the commercial sex industry,” read the filing from Zachary A. Mitlitsky, a special agent for the US Department of Homeland Security.
The source told investigators her associate was in contact with a woman named Hana, who gave the associate the name of a California man, allegedly identified as James Lee, who helps lease apartments for the sex trade.
In August, under the supervision of investigators, the source placed a secretly recorded call to James Lee, purportedly to discuss opening a brothel in Connecticut with Lee signing the lease. The conversation was in Korean and the source later told investigators that James Lee indicated he would receive $1,000 per month in exchange for renting the apartment under his name.
That monthly payment would come “on top of the rent and utilities which must be paid,” the source told investigators, according to the affidavit.
James Lee told the source that if a property manager ever called him to enter or inspect an apartment, he would say that the woman inside the unit is “my niece, she’s a student, you can just knock and go in,” according to the affidavit.
On one such occasion, the property manager for one of the Virginia apartments contacted James Lee in late August to inform him that the unit had a possible water leak that needed to be looked at.
When the property manager arrived, a woman who identified herself as “Jisoo” opened the door and led the property manager to a leaky utility closet. The manager conducted an inspection and videotaped the leak before placing a second call to James Lee.
He asked Lee who was living in the unit, and Lee said it was his daughter.
“When the property manager asked JAMES his daughter’s name, JAMES was unable to provide an answer,” the affidavit said.
Meanwhile, the ring’s website for Virginia clients was advertising that Jisoo was available for services on Sept. 2 at an apartment in Fairfax.
“Therefore, I believe that the Asian female was the woman advertised as ‘Jisoo’ on the Virginia Brothel website,” the affidavit said.
Interviews with customers in Massachusetts
According to the affidavit, investigators have interviewed about 20 customers, often immediately after they left apartments in Massachusetts. On the evening of Jan. 27, authorities interviewed two customers at an alleged brothel location at 90 Fawcett St. in Cambridge.
One customer admitted that he “booked [via text] with the Boston Brothel Phone a two-hour appointment for $640, which he paid in cash,” the affidavit said.
The second customer said he had used the service once a week over the past two years.
A third customer whom investigators confronted in late October after he left a Virginia location admitted he had just “received a massage and manual manipulation” for $200 during a 30-minute appointment, the filing said.
“The customer indicated that the sex worker tried to ‘upcharge’ him and offered ... intercourse, which he declined,” the affidavit said.
Investigators said there could be hundreds more customers that have yet to be identified.
“As detailed below, the customers or sex buyers described within this affidavit are not named,” the document stated. “I do not do this for purposes of maintaining their anonymity, but instead do so because our investigation into their involvement in prostitution is active and ongoing.”
Allegedly coercive tactics
Authorities alleged that the defendants, mainly Han Lee and Junmyung Lee, used “coercive tactics” to get the women to engage in the commercial sex trade.
“Some of the tactics include, but are not limited to, delivering food to females so they do not have to exit the building and spend time away from the apartment, ensuring the unit is prepared before the arrival of a female, and assisting females with their luggage into the brothel units, and subsequently locking the door behind them after exiting,” the affidavit said.
On Jan. 3, Han Lee was observed on video surveillance “assisting” a woman as she entered the Fawcett Street location, the affidavit said.
“After shutting the door, HAN locked the door behind her before departing,” the filing said. “I believe HAN utilized this tactic so that the commercial sex providers felt that they had to stay in the unit to perform sex acts for cash on behalf of the prostitution network.”
The defendants also registered websites so the women had “free advertisement” for their services, and did not have to “establish their own local customer base,” the affidavit said. The women were allowed to stay overnight in the apartments and their travel was paid for “at times,” the filing said.
“In the simplest terms, the commercial sex workers only had to show up, work for sex, and get paid,” the affidavit said. “All other aspects of recruiting and making appointments with customers and finding a location for the commercial sex to occur were taken care of by the prostitution network and the co-conspirators.”
Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.
Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.