A Brook Road house in Lakewood, N.J., where suspects allegedly ran a house of prostitution, is shown on Thursday, July 18, 2013.(Photo: Mark Sullivan, The East Brunswick, N.J., Home News Tribune)
TRENTON, N.J. - Women lured from Mexico and other Latin American countries with promises of jobs as house cleaners or babysitters found a different reality when they reached Lakewood, N.J. They instead were placed into high-volume prostitution, sometimes serving as many as 40 clients or "johns'' in a single day, authorities said.
The kingpin and owner of at least three Lakewood brothels, Jose Cruz "Chato'' Romero-Flores, 38, along with four male associates and his girlfriend have been arrested in a human trafficking takedown sweep, leaders of state and federal law enforcement agencies said Thursday.
Authorities said they launched Operation No Boundaries over a year ago and found that it was not uncommon for the dozens of women who worked for Romero-Flores to service over 100 johns, at $30 per session, over a six-day week, with Sunday off.
"They endured a miserable life,'' acting state Attorney General John Hoffman said of the women. "This case bears the classic hallmarks of international sex-related human trafficking in that we have young women brought illegally into the United States. They are fearful and they are vulnerable because of their illegal status, their inability to earn a living legitimately and their lack of a network of supportive family and friends.''
"The women are at the mercy of the human traffickers who exploit them,'' he added.
Clients could go to brothels operated by Romero-Flores or his associates, or the women were driven to meetings in different parts of the state, Hoffman said. The operation was part of a network of brothels in New Jersey, New York and other states.
Romero-Flores was arrested July 11 at his Lakewood apartment 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 but only one was operating at the time of the arrests.
"We rescued a number of victims during the takedown but we are seeking additional victims in what is an ongoing investigation,'' Hoffman said. "These victims are difficult to find.''
Also arrested the same day on various human trafficking, organized street crime and prostitution chargers were Felix Rios-Martinez, 47, Raul Romero-Castillo, 30, and Haliro Bueno, 21, all of Lakewood; and Santos Lazaero Flores-Cruz, 58, of Union City.
Romero-Flores's girlfriend, Odulia Bedran Trejo, 22, was arrested Sunday at Romero-Flores's apartment on charges of second-degree promoting organized street crime and third-degree promoting prostitution.
Hoffman said the girlfriend and the four male associates allegedly assisted Romero-Flores by watching the brothels or driving women and clients to and from the brothels. All six defendants are Mexican nationals who are in the U.S. illegally and are being held in Ocean County Jail with bail set at $1 million for Romero-Flores and $100,000 for the other defendants. All are subject of detainers filed by U.S. immigration authorities. A spokeswoman for Hoffman said authorities have not been notified of attorneys for the defendants.
The clients may not be off the hook.
Hoffman declined to answer directly whether customers have been identified, interviewed or face criminal prosecution, but said, "We are dealing with that issue currently to the degree of which appropriate investigative resources are being deployed. This is not a charging document that includes them but the appropriate legal steps will be taken.''
Human trafficking operations "are certainly prevalent" in New Jersey and other states and are being targeted by law enforcement, Hoffman said. He said residents with suspicions should contact authorities.
"If you find that there is a house in which there is a constant influx of new people coming in and out... especially in residential neighborhoods, those are fairly odd occurrences, and worthy of note and worthy of the attention of law enforcement,'' he said.
He noted that the upcoming Super Bowl and influx of tourists to New Jersey will present a challenge to law enforcement regarding human trafficking.
The investigation was led by the state Division of Criminal Justice and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations. Also assisting were the New Jersey State Police Investigations Section and other state law enforcement units and the Lakewood and Brick police departments.