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Men cruised the hallway of an upscale Bellevue apartment building, checking their cellphones and scanning the unit s before pausing at a door that swung open even before they knocked. A neighbor grew suspicious and alerted police, saying she believed the woman living down the hall was involved in sex work. The set in motion an eight-month investigation that revealed South Korean prostitutes were working out of a dozen luxury Bellevue apartments.

Many of their customers were members of a secretive network of men who not only paid for sex — in some cases scores of times — but would also write detailed online reviews of their encounters and encourage others to do the same. The website also accepted free advertisements from prostitutes. One customer, a software-development director for Amazon, even helped construct and maintain prostitution-related websites. The Review Board, which had been an online forum for sex buyers sinceboasted it had 23, members, most of them in the Pacific Northwest, in Kgirldelights, an online advertising and booking site for South Korean prostitutes built by members of The League, was particularly popular, with more than 4 million hits in a single month.

Together, the websites ensured the women in the expensive Bellevue apartments had a steady stream of customers — and that the customers had a steady supply of new women.

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But the bust also drew condemnation from proponents of the legalization of prostitution — and from some of the men facing criminal charges — who saw an overzealous government interfering with what they said was a reasonable exchange of sex for money among consenting adults. Several insisted The Review Board helped ensure the safety of the women selling sex in the Bellevue apartments because members developed an online identity and history.

When the anonymous tip about the Avalon Meydenbauer apartment landed in his inbox, Bellevue police Detective Ben Richey no relation to prosecutor Richey quickly learned that the well-visited unit was leased to Donald Mueller, a year-old former marijuana dealer.

Richey and another detective arranged a meeting with Mueller at a downtown Bellevue coffee shop and told him they thought he was renting the apartment for use as a brothel. But he not only confirmed their suspicions, he seemed eager to share the details. He would handle advertising, screening and booking.

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Mueller recruited primarily young South Korean women, some who came directly from South Korea and others who were already working in other U. He and another brothel manager told detectives the women or a relative had typically gotten into debt and they were forced to work as prostitutes to pay it off.

In response to the police questioning and neighbor complaints, he had moved his operation — five blocks away. The reason, he later told undercover detectives, was he believed that Asian escorts drew the scrutiny of law enforcement alert to the possibility that the women might be trafficked around the U. But Mueller, a good friend of Zitars, was pressing him for more publicity on The Review Board for the South Korean women working out of his Bellevue apartment.

He kicked off anyone he thought was rude or crude and those who tried to sneak back using a new handle.

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He carefully screened the women who wanted to advertise on the board. Three sex workers interviewed for this story said that very few African-American or Latina prostitutes were ever allowed to advertise on The Review Board.

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Zitars was interviewed by Seattle Met magazine for a story on prostitution in the city. Using his Tahoe Ted screen name, he explained that he had been buying sex since a memorable experience after college when he ended up at a posh Bellevue condo with two gorgeous strippers.

His online persona was of a worldly and experienced sex buyer who was far too careful and discriminating to ever find himself in a tawdry motel room with an undercover cop posing as a prostitute. They chatted via computer, gave advice about seeing prostitutes in other cities, recommended the best hotels to conduct business and how to avoid the scrutiny of the front desk.

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Zitars and other core members of The Review Board threw invitation-only get-togethers at local bars and brew pubs, hosted quarterly karaoke nights and dressed up for holiday-themed parties. They referred to each other only by their pseudonyms, the women as well as the men. Or how to tell if a customer was dumb versus malicious.

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If you want to be safe, it helps to talk with the other girls. Alisa Bernard was a teenage runaway and sex-abuse survivor when she turned to prostitution at age She has a vivid memory of meeting Zitars.

With Mueller and other Review Board regulars arguing for more access to South Korean women, Zitars eventually relaxed his guard. Many men who posted on The Review Board would later claim they thought the online resource kept women working as prostitutes safe by giving the sex buyers an online presence and identity.

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But Bernard said that during the time she advertised herself on The Review Board, she was raped multiple times, strangled and held against her will. Richey, the deputy prosecutor, said the relationship between the women performing sex acts and the men paying for them is inherently unequal.

The South Korean women, by contrast, were typically young, isolated in a foreign country, traveling with little more than a suitcase full of clothes, maybe overstaying a tourist visa or brought to the U. Many communicated with the men through a smartphone translator app — or hand gestures.

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Richey is even more adamant that what the South Korean prostitutes were doing could not be called consensual because they were being paid. He said research internationally has found that more than 70 percent of prostitutes have been the victim of physical assault — rapes, beatings or armed robberies — and that despite screening clients and checking references, they are vulnerable because they typically work in isolated apartments, alone.

In MarchKittaporn Saosawatsri opened the door of her apartment at the Avalon Meydenbauer to a man with a knife. A Thai native, she was 37, an independent sex worker and older than most of the Asian prostitutes who advertised online.

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Her ad on Back. He called several other prostitutes, trying to make a date for that night, before reaching Saosawatsri. Prosecutors at his trial said he demanded her money and valuables.

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When Saosawatsri refused, he started stabbing her with a knife repeatedly, growing more and more angry. She listed herself on national sites like Back. The online sex-buying investigation that began in April uncovered the interlocking organizations that ran the prostitution businesses in Bellevue. A first-time customer had to provide references or a piece of photo ID. Bookers told the customers that they needed the IDs in case anything happened to the women. But Kraft said what they were really doing was protecting themselves from law enforcement.

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Once the men visited a prostitute, they were encouraged by other customers online to write reviews. That in turn drove more men, who were searching prostitution-related internet sites, to book dates, which in turn prompted the opening of more apartment brothels to meet the growing demand. What they were investigating resembled an organized-crime network. And they needed to act.

Men were not only writing reviews, but were serving as references for each other to book dates. They were helping to connect prostitution agencies with photographers for advertising pictures and placing those with internet escort sites. Using their tech savvy, some were building prostitution websites.

How police brought down a tech-savvy prostitution network in Bellevue

Several of the men were even putting their names on apartment leases and driving the young women who were cycling through Bellevue to and from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. In other words, they were operating more as pimps than isolated buyers. At the same time, prosecutor Richey said, there was an explosion in the of residential brothels on the Eastside. What we were seeing was the whole picture — organized online groups of buyers and the brothels serving them.

The target of the investigation would be high-volume users, men who were influential in driving business to the South Korean prostitutes, or who took an organizing role, such as forming The League to publicize the agencies and apartments. The prosecutors believed they had evidence of promoting, through the reviews the men themselves wrote. Hillman, using an alias, started asking questions on The Review Board.

He recalls he was getting very little traction until one of the members told him he needed to book more dates and write more reviews. Once he started posting reviews, Hillman said, the same member invited him to the newly formed League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the group of about 50 men from around the country who promoted South Korean prostitutes. He was also invited to a members-only meet-and-greet at the Tap House Grill in Bellevue in June that year.

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At that meeting, Hillman said, the other men, awkwardly at first, discussed their sexual encounters, the sex acts various prostitutes were willing to perform as well as the prices, and the duration of their visits. The conversations became so explicit, Hillman said, that other bar patrons seated nearby grew visibly uncomfortable and moved away.

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Hillman said the men speculated that the young women were likely trafficked and had little choice but to work as prostitutes. It was one of the big breaks in the case. Mueller asked Hillman, who was still working undercover, to drive his women and two others from another Bellevue apartment brothel, Golden Blossom. Hillman wore a wire. Another detective posed as an Uber driver.

Richey, the Bellevue detective, trailed in an unmarked car and listened in on Hillman. Out in the parking lot, police were secretly photographing cars that arrived and the men who got out.

They also began matching the handles with the names and addresses of the inner members of The League. The kgirldelights website had a million views in November On Jan. Hillman, the undercover detective, was inside, again wearing a wire.

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About 40 police were staged around the bar and outside. Richey could see cars pulling in and the men getting out: Woodstock, TomCat, Hashi, Husky — seven men in all. Richey said his strongest memory of the night was how noisy the restaurant was on the audio recorded from inside. As police rushed in, there was a sudden hush — except for the men seated with Hillman.

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A King County deputy approached him while he was outside and told him the apartment, which doubled as the Superstar GFE Girl Friend Experience brothel, was now a crime scene. Police closed 12 apartments and told 12 South Korean women they were free to leave.

Police and translators explained that brothel owners and some frequent customers had been arrested but that the women would not be charged with a crime. They were offered help and connected to social-service agencies.

We are offering you advocacy or services if you want them. Some of the defendants, though they quickly pleaded guilty, argued afterward that they had committed no crime and merely wanted to help the prostitutes.

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Two of the defendants swept up in the bust were sex workers who had advanced to brothel operators. One, Jabong Kim, 38, who sometimes advertised herself under the name Crystal, had ly enlisted League members to help her find a new apartment when she was evicted from the Avalon Meydenbauer for running a brothel. At his sentencing hearing in JulyRhinehart, 48, broke down. His attorney explained that Rhinehart had become infatuated with one of the women and offered to lease her an apartment in his name.

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