Raised by grandparents without ever knowing her mother or father, who divorced and fled when she was 1 year old, a woman we’ll call Ji craved a better life as she left South Korea for the United States. A broker she trusted told her she could have a safe voyage via Japan and Mexico for a $24,000 payment. Ji agreed. But that man had quietly sold the petite, 28-year-old orphan to his pals in a Southern California sex-trafficking ring.
When Ji arrived in the Los Angeles area in late 2004, she discovered the truth. Leaders of the ring—men named Peter, Ryan, Andy, Jun and Steve, according to law-enforcement files—demanded she work 24 hours a day, seven days a week as a prostitute until they determined she’d paid off the debt from her trip. Considered property, they branded her body as a Texas cowboy would a steer. She was required to meet a mandatory, daily, 10-man minimum. They also fed her mind-altering drugs to weaken her resistance as well as her ability to escape the building that housed her and other immigrants who’d fallen into the same trap.
The ringleaders made sure their captives understood fleeing would be futile, if not fatal. Ji’s one attempt to leave ended with a severe beating, after which she required 40 stitches in her head. She was slapped with a $2,000 enhancement to her debt and denied food for two days.
Then, one night, she saw a desperate Chinese woman try to escape the brothel. The angry pimps caught her and cracked her skull with rock blows. To reinforce their power, they tossed the woman’s corpse in a box and ordered Ji and other women to dig a grave.
For almost four years, Ji endured a painful existence off the grid. She was often placed in massage-parlor rooms hidden from potential prying cop eyes. Men in Dallas and San Francisco separately bought her as their personal sex slave, according to Ji.
In 2008, a customer became overcome with guilt and helped her escape out a back door and into an awaiting vehicle. She met other good Samaritans who offered help. However, scars from her experiences were deep. A doctor diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hallucinations and depression clouded her mind. She also suffered from continual nightmares that the prostitution ringleaders—who’d let her know they were hunting her—would catch, torture and send her back into forced labor. At one point, a suicidal Ji landed in an Orange County medical facility, where treatment improved her condition.
But by 2014, this immigrant still faced a major problem: She hadn’t entered the U.S. legally. Actually, she faced a second obstacle, this one perhaps of her own making. To earn a living in LA, she had opened an internet “shopping mall” business that sold small amounts of illegal narcotics by international mail to South Koreans, according to prosecutors in Seoul.
These law-enforcement officials allege their months-long investigation into drug-carrying mail shipments of toys arriving at Gimpo and Incheon airports eventually identified Ji, whose real name is unclear given her use of numerous aliases, as the source. In exchange for Korean currency, she shipped cocaine, methamphetamine and Ecstasy pills, police claim. Records show her customers included a housewife in the midst of an affair and a father with a secret addiction he hid by injecting meth inside his car while he was away from his family.
“There is clear and sufficient evidence to indict Ji,” Korean prosecutors announced; if they were successful in winning a conviction, she would face a minimum of five years in prison per count. But there was a hitch: Korean law prevented them from indicting a suspect who is on the run. In June 2016, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency arrested her for violating immigration laws, and the extradition process began.
Ji, who has denied guilt in the narcotics case, didn’t want to return to Korea. Her grandparents had died, and she knew no one else there. She also feared she would be abandoned in one of that nation’s notoriously neglected mental hospitals for the remainder of her life. With opposition from Korean prosecutors and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Ji sought asylum here.
Last year, her case landed with U.S. Immigration Judge Ian R. Simons, a former federal and local prosecutor. DOJ officials suspected Ji may have fabricated her story and her illnesses, but Simons disagreed after a hearing, saying she’d been treated for years by her abusers as “a commodity” rather than a human being.
“The court found her testimony to be forthcoming, consistent and believable,” the judge stated in his October ruling. “The court noted no overt effort on her part to embellish her case or exaggerate her symptoms. In fact, some of the things she said in court were to her detriment.”
Simons stated the Korean criminal case wasn’t a deal breaker. “The court also understands that this is an individual who is mentally fragile,” he stated. “She has a history of being taken advantage of. There is at least some belief that she may have been unwittingly wrapped up in a situation that she was not fully able to comprehend. . . . The court finds that this [criminal allegation] is not an egregious factor such that asylum should be denied.”
But this year, DOJ officials asked a different judge, Steve Kim, to comply with South Korea’s extradition request. They opined that Kim should not entertain any objections from Ji or “investigate the fairness of the requesting country’s justice system.” Only U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo can block extradition based on humanitarian concerns, they added.
In his March ruling, Kim—a magistrate judge based in LA—agreed, ordering Ji handed over to South Korea prosecutors.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; earned six dozen other reporting awards; and been hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.