A Chinese woman living in Atlanta was offered a high-paying, out-of-town job in a massage parlor.
“When she got here it was a completely different deal,” said Steve Wills, Woodbury Public Safety commander of investigations.
The woman was put on a plane to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, where Brian Lee Kersten, 61, of Pleasant Valley, Wis., picked her up in a golden-yellow truck and brought her to the Extended Stay hotel in Woodbury, allegedly for work as a prostitute.
Kersten faces sex trafficking charges in Washington County District Court. He has been conditionally released from the county jail in lieu of $100,000 bail and is due back in court to face one felony count on Monday, Sept. 19.
“It started in Woodbury,” Wills said of a recent investigation that led to Eagan and St. Croix County in Wisconsin, where Kersten has owned and operated a private practice for 25 years at Baldwin Veterinary Center.
On July 30, a day after Extended Stay hotel employees called police about a suspicious room renter who matched Kersten’s description, Woodbury police interviewed a second man who admitted to collecting money for the leader of the sex trafficking operation, a 48-year-old New York woman, according to the court complaint.
The woman from New York took out ads in Chinese newspapers in Atlanta and New York recruiting them as masseuses. Then she flew them to the Twin Cities, took out ads on Backpage.com, and booked hotel rooms for the women, who received $20 of the $80 they charged for massage services and possibly more. If sex acts occurred, the women would receive their tip, said the man, identified as 56-year-old A.M.W. and not charged of a crime as of Monday.
After paying the woman from New York for sex on several occasions, A.M.W. began collecting money from the prostitutes for her, as did Kersten, the complaint said.
Kersten also made suspicious wire transfers totaling more than $45,000 to China this spring and summer, according to the complaint.
His vehicles - not only the truck - visited the airport on Aug. 1, Aug. 20 and Aug. 27, airport police surveillance revealed.
A family told law enforcement officers from Wisconsin that Kersten visited his prostitute in China and that he was bringing young girls from China to be trafficked at massage parlors, the complaint said.
On July 29, an employee at Extended Stay reported to Woodbury police that after email alerts came to hotel franchisees throughout the Twin Cities metro area, employees at the Woodbury hotel recognized the signs of prostitution apparent at their workplace.
“They had some internal information,” investigator Wills said.
The emails described the woman from New York - named in the complaint but not charged as of Monday - who, along with “a few of her women,” had been removed from a metro area Extended Stay for alleged prostitution, according to the court complaint. Local employees were on the lookout for a group of Asian women in a room rented by a Chinese woman who doesn’t speak English well. A questionable man, the emails said, tended to be present at check-in.
In 2014, the woman from New York was previously arrested for forced servitude and benefiting from prostitution during a massage parlor investigation.
Investigators believe the woman from New York and a 38-year-old California man, who also had not been charged as of Monday, were connected. Police connected the two via reservations at Extended Stay franchises and an ad in the body rub section of Backpage.com.
A “New Asian Girl” was pictured bikini clad in a Backpage.com ad.
On July 30, she arrived at the airport, and was captured on surveillance camera following a man and a woman from the baggage claim to a truck registered to Baldwin Veterinary Center.
The truck transported the woman to Woodbury.
A man matching Kersten’s description checked into the Extended Stay with the victim, who spoke little English and signed the registry with Chinese characters. The man left without registering his vehicle.
After the room was rented in Woodbury, the victim from Atlanta was rescued by Woodbury police, investigator Wills said.
Police surveillance was organized and an undercover officer text message to the phone number in the Backpage.com ad was answered almost immediately, according to the complaint. The officer set up a massage at a cost of $80 an hour.
On July 31, when the victim opened the hotel room door for her customer, the man identified himself as police and interviewed the victim via an interpreter.
She said while living in Georgia she was offered a job as a masseuse at a spa.
When she found out she was to give massages in a hotel room, she wanted to leave. She was in the process of having a friend from California book a ticket for her to return to Georgia. She said she was told she could make a lot of money working in a massage salon and was upset at being tricked into staying at the hotel, according to the complaint.
When police showed her a picture of a man who visited her room while it was under surveillance, she claimed A.M.W. was the refrigerator repairman.
Police ran the plates on A.M.W.’s motorcycle and located the man, who said he was in a relationship with the woman from New York. He met her a year ago, paying for a massage and sex in Eagan.
He said the woman is no longer performing sex acts. Instead, she is in charge of the sex-trafficking operation.
A.M.W. visited the woman from Atlanta for a massage and a sex act.
After receiving some services from a local shelter, the victim left town. The credit card used for purchase of the plane ticket back to Atlanta belonged to the 38-year-old man from California.
Then, Woodbury police executed a search warrant in St. Croix County, leading to Kersten’s arrest and charges. The case against Kersten was filed Tuesday, Sept. 6.
More charges are pending, specifically against the woman from New York, Wills said.
St. Croix County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Scott Knudson said the warrant was executed Thursday at Kersten's home in Roberts, Wis., and at his veterinary business in Baldwin.
He said paperwork and “items of interest” were confiscated during the searches.
Kersten waived extradition to Minnesota at a Thursday hearing in St. Croix County Circuit Court.
According to the Baldwin Veterinary Center's website, Kersten has been a vet for 25 years. He specializes in small animals, food animals and equine medicine.
Knudson said the arrest came as a shock to clients who had their pets cared for by Kersten, noting that he “seemed to be” well-liked.
There’s no stereotypical victim in sex trafficking cases. Victims are of all different ages, municipalities and nationalities. While a recent human trafficking victim also came from China, the cases were unrelated, investigator Wills said. Each case taken on by the Washington County Human Trafficking Coalition is unique and challenging, he added.
Since 2007, Minnesota law enforcement have seen 265 cases as of June 30, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NTRC), a national anti-trafficking hotline and resource center.
Overall cases spiked in 2013 with 57 reported cases, up from 32 in 2012. Since June, NTRC recorded 37 cases so far this year.
The number of victims who call the center's hotline has dramatically increased this year than in prior years and now make up the largest amount of calls.
The leading type of trafficking often involves sexual exploitation, followed by labor trafficking. The vast majority of trafficking victims tend to be women and the majority of total victims are U.S. citizens, according to NTRC.
Locally, a broad coalition of law enforcement, the county attorney’s office and human services has been involved in similar cases in Oakdale and Forest Lake, Wills said. Woodbury also has worked closely with Minneapolis police on its growing number of sex-related arrests.
“Crime doesn’t have boundaries,” said Michelle Okada, Woodbury Public Safety public information officer.
Local hotels are among the entities that have partnered with the police to stop sex trafficking. Woodbury Public Safety and other coalition members have been training hotel staff to recognize possible prostitution and alert authorities.
Extended Stay’s manager was unavailable for comment Monday.
Mike Longaecker and Youssef Rddad contributed to this report.