Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) -- A prostitution and drug ring that was marketing its services to visitors for the Super Bowl on Feb. 2 was broken up with the arrests of many of its alleged leaders, the New York attorney general said.
The Manhattan-based ring sold “party pack” of cocaine and prostitutes, advertised via public access television, the Internet and text messages, and attracted clients from as far away as Texas, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said today. At least 11 of 18 managers of the ring have been arrested for their alleged roles in a “very sophisticated operation,” that appeared to have generated millions of dollars, he said.
The announcement of the arrests comes three days before the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos are set to kick off the National Football League’s title game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Broncos are listed by oddsmakers as 2 1/2-point favorites to win the first Super Bowl played in an outdoor stadium in a cold-weather city.
Law enforcement in New York and New Jersey are on alert for spikes in crime that might be related to the event, including possible increases in sex crimes and human trafficking. Acting New Jersey Attorney General John Jay Hoffman said in a statement yesterday that the state has already drafted a “comprehensive operation plan” to deal with that type of crime.
Separately, federal officials said today that they seized more than 200,000 counterfeit items worth more than $21 million including jerseys, baseball hats, T-shirts, jackets and other souvenirs, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Authorities arrested 50 people as part of an operation that began in June and targeted international shipments of counterfeit merchandise as they entered the U.S., according to a statement today from the enforcement agency.
Warehouses, stores, flea markets, websites and street vendors selling counterfeit sportswear and tickets were identified by U.S. authorities, according to the statement.
Major public events can spark “a disturbance of criminal activity,” ranging from prostitution to pickpocketing, said Robert McCrie, a professor of security management at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“The nature of the visitors particularly for something like the Super Bowl, are high rollers, people living for the moment, and they seek gratification in all conceivable ways,” he said in a phone interview today. “People can get careless and not judge accurately what their proper behavior should be.”
Human trafficking, and its overlap with the sex trade, are a particular worry for the New York and New Jersey area, which is known as a hot spot for a variety of illegal trafficking, said Melanie Gorelick, of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
“Because of the high demand of this service, a lot of people are in it through force, fraud or coercion,” she said in a phone interview.
Kate Keisel director of Polaris Project New Jersey, another anti-trafficking group, said there is a “modest uptick” in human trafficking around all large events, “the Super Bowl being one of them.”
“We just haven’t seen a great deal of data that supports this perception that the increase is so great,” she said in a phone interview. “These are the same problems happening 365 days a year.”
National Football League spokesman Greg Aiello declined to comment on the human trafficking issue or the New York prostitution and drug ring case.
“It is a law enforcement issue related to major events of all kinds,” he said in an e-mail. “We will let law enforcement experts discuss it.”
In a statement on the counterfeiting case, NFL Chief Litigation Officer Anastasia Danias said the league is “working hard to prevent fans from being scammed by criminals seeking to profit from the public’s passion for the NFL, their home teams and the Super Bowl.
The New York prostitution and drug ring made millions of dollars and laundered money through a network of front businesses including a wig wholesaler, a dating service and a limousine company, Schneiderman said in a news conference today.
‘‘This was a very sophisticated operation moving a tremendous amount of money illegally over the course of the past year,’’ he said. In some aspects, the business was ‘‘vertically integrated,’’ such as through the inclusion of drug distributors that turned cocaine into crack, which was also offered as part of party packages, Schneiderman said.
Sometimes the ring accepted credit cards and made the charges appear as payment for legitimate services, Schneiderman said. Prostitutes would often repeatedly charge a customer’s card when the person was ‘‘impaired,’’ reaching totals of as much as $10,000 a night, according to Schneiderman.
Schneiderman said the individuals charged in the case are all ‘‘management,’’ not street-level prostitutes. Sanctuary for Families, a New York-based group, was called to assist with any potential human trafficking victims who might be uncovered as part of the investigation.
The director of the group’s anti-trafficking initiative, Lori Cohen, said in a phone interview that it isn’t clear yet whether any of the prostitutes discovered so far are victims of trafficking. She said she is unsure how many have been found.
‘‘I’m hoping we will continue to work with the women we met,” Cohen said. “I felt they all had stories that needed to be explored further.”
The group regularly advertised to its clients as having “new girls,” a sign that human trafficking could have been used, Schneiderman said. As recently as last week, frequent customers received a text message saying “new sexy & beautiful girls R in town waiting for u,” the attorney general said.
Investigators from the New York City Police Department, state police and Schneiderman’s Organized Crime Task Force uncovered the ring in a probe that lasted almost a year, the attorney general said. The operation purportedly spanned the New York boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens; and Long Island, New York, as well as several other states.
“These criminals utilized apartments in residential buildings as a way of carrying out their illicit activities,” said New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton. “They disregarded the safety and well-being of every member in those communities by providing a ‘one-stop shopping’ drug and prostitution ring.”
Individuals accused of being part of the ring are charged with conspiracy and a variety of other crimes including narcotics sales, promoting prostitution and money laundering, according to Schneiderman.
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