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Originally published March 4, 2013 at 6:58 PM | Page modified March 4, 2013 at 6:58 PM

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Not-guilty pleas by 4 in multistate sex ring

The accused ringleader is Bellevue resident Unruean Aboulafia, a 34-year-old Thai national, who is charged with conspiracy to transport individuals in furtherance of prostitution; conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution; and conspiracy to engage in money laundering.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The accused ringleader of a multistate prostitution ring and three of her co-defendants entered not-guilty pleas Monday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, after a grand-jury indictment last week that found the suspects operated a web of “residential brothels,” including in apartments in Kirkland and Bellevue.

Bellevue resident Unruean Aboulafia, a 34-year-old Thai national who allegedly is in the country illegally, is charged with conspiracy to transport individuals in furtherance of prostitution; conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution, for allegedly using computers and cellphones to advertise and facilitate the women’s sexual services; and conspiracy to engage in money laundering.

According to the indictment, Aboulafia allegedly recruited Thai women, paid their smuggling debts of up to $60,000, set them up in apartments and then advertised their services on backpage.com, an online-advertising site that’s long been criticized as facilitating the prostitution of women and girls.

In addition to operating apartment-based brothels on the Eastside, Aboulafia is accused of running similar operations in Chicago, Scottsdale, Ariz., and in the Falls Church-Tysons Corner area of Virginia, where the women were also advertised on backpage.com. The prostitution ring operated between April 2009 and February, when it was shut down after a lengthy undercover investigation, according to federal prosecutors.

It is not clear when Aboulafia was arrested. U.S. Magistrate Judge James Donohue on Monday ordered her to remain in detention until her defense attorney seeks to revisit the issue.

Thanyathorn Mohr, 35, of Bellevue, is also a Thai national but is here legally, according to court records.

She was the alleged “operator” for the prostituted women, and answered calls generated by the backpage.com ads, scheduled appointments and directed customers to the various apartments, the indictment says.

Two others — Xinping Zhang, 39, and her ex-husband, Jeff Chu, 48 — are accused of leasing apartments for the prostitution ring, collecting money and laundering the funds through various bank accounts. Zhang is a Chinese national legally in the U.S. Chu, who lives in Bellevue, is a U.S. citizen.

Mohr, Zhang and Chu, all of whom had been issued summonses to appear in court on Monday, also pleaded not guilty. The two women were taken into custody pending a detention hearing on Thursday; Chu was not detained but was ordered to surrender his passport and abide by other court conditions.

Also indicted in the conspiracy is Edward Flanigan, 57, of Federal Way. Flanigan, who is accused of renting apartments for the prostitution ring in Washington and Arizona, is to make his first court appearance Tuesday.

Aboulafia’s ex-husband, Steven Aboulafia, 59, of Henderson, Nev., is also alleged to have rented apartments in Washington and Virginia for the ring and to have collected prostitution proceeds.

It could not be immediately determined when he is to appear in federal court in Seattle.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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