Behind Closed Doors: International human trafficking ring busted in the Upstate

Original Reporting

GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – Four people from the Upstate have been arrested and charged in connection to an extensive human trafficking investigation that likely originated overseas, according to a Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations.

The case findings indicated prostitutes and trafficking victims were groomed for commercial sex in the Dominican Republic, Colombia and other South and Central American countries, and would then fly into the United States on six-month travel visas.

According to Special Agent Steven Michaels, the victims would be flown around the country to prostitute in major cities, including Greenville and Spartanburg, as part of a large-scale human trafficking ring.

Orianna Martinez (From: Greenville Co. Sheriff’s Office)

Orianna Martinez, Selvin Ernesto Monroy-Melgar, Sulay Matos and Christian Carriel were arrested on September 21st, 2018 on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to violate the Mann Act. The Mann Act outlaws sex trafficking activities that involve travel in interstate or foreign commerce.

Orianna Martinez was identified as the “local ring leader” by investigators on the case, according to Michaels. She was responsible for helping foreign prostitutes and trafficking victims fly into local airports, including the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, and for providing them with transportation during their two-week stay, he said. She was nicknamed “Air Traffic Controller” during the investigation.

THE CASE

The investigation was opened in 2017 after a tip came into the Greenville Police Department that prostitution was happening out of an apartment on Pelham Road.

READ: Full incident report

What investigators said they were not aware of, was that what lay behind the closed apartment door would launch the most extensive human trafficking investigation in Upstate history.

“When they got here and executed the search warrant at this apartment, what they found is that it was far more sophisticated than really anything we’d ever seen,” Jonathan Bastoni, a human trafficking investigator with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, said.

Evidence photo (From: Homeland Security Investigations)

Bastoni explained that Greenville Police called him after officers found themselves standing in what appeared to be a highly sophisticated brothel.

“This was an apartment that was set up specifically for commercial sex,” he said.

According to Bastoni, investigators found mints in the waiting area and beds without sheets, suggesting the area was used solely for the purpose of commercial sex.

Evidence photo (From: Homeland Security Investigations)

Poker chips were marked with numbers, indicating how long someone had paid for sex. “QV” stood for “quick visit,” according to Michaels, who was called in to take over the case after the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office.

“We start going through the closets. We see everything that you would need,” explained Michaels. “There are condoms there, there are feminine products there, everything that you would need to run a brothel. This is not something you would standardly see in Greenville, and not something I’ve seen in my career.”

READ: Orianna Martinez arrest warrant

Michaels said that what he didn’t realize at the time that what he was looking at was just the tip of the iceberg.

“I go to management, say ‘Who is renting this apartment?’ I get that information, and the investigation just takes off from there,” Michaels said.

According to Michaels, the name on that lease was Orianna Martinez, a Greenville County resident born in the Dominican Republic who moved to the Upstate from New York.

Bastoni and Michaels said they found more than $100,000 cash had been deposited into her bank account over the previous six months, but that shockingly, a lot of it was also being transferred out across the country.

“There is an enormous amount of money being funneled through this criminal enterprise all over the place,” Bastoni said.

“After one point, we had a break in the investigation where I was able to get a hold of Miss Martinez’s her cell phone,” Michaels said. “And that’s when the investigation really blew up.”

After searching Martinez’s phone number in a database, both investigators said they found it linked to more than 80 commercial sex ads across the country, from New York to Miami, Baltimore and even in some cases Canada.

All of the women also had something in common.

“When I look at her cell phone, I saw that she was using a texting app. And we saw women from all around the world texting her for time in her apartments here in Greenville,” Michaels said.

Investigators said they found that the women Martinez was advertising were all from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and other Central and South American countries.

Evidence photo (From: Homeland Security Investigations)

According to Michaels, they were groomed to work in commercial sex and entered the United States on six-month travel visas.

Once inside the country, investigators said they found evidence that the women would be flown to major cities as part of an international human trafficking ring.

Screenshots of flight itineraries on Martinez’s phone indicated she was helping them book flights on commercial airlines directly into South Carolina, using airports like the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport.

Bastoni added that four women would come into the Upstate at a time and prostitute for two weeks; one week in Greenville and one in Spartanburg, hiding in brothels that Martinez had set up.

“We’re very familiar with large drug trafficking organizations. I don’t think I had the same concept that there could be large commercial sex organizations, where you had huge networks of people that were interconnected that knew to call this person or that person, that knew how to transport women from this state to the next state in the same way,” said Bastoni.

According to Bastoni, while some women prostituted willingly, hoping to make money for family back home, others got stuck in the ring and wanted to get out.

Michaels confirmed investigators were able to help four trafficking victims get the services they needed to leave the ring safely.

Martinez was arrested on federal warrants and pleaded guilty in 2019 to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to violate the Mann Act.

Both investigators told 7News they believed Martinez did not have any regret.

“From shopping sprees to high end cars to a nice apartment, she was profiting from this herself,” Bastoni said.

“She lived a lavish lifestyle by any stretch of the imagination, and that was based on women selling their bodies to men. And I don’t think she’s ever fully grasped that concept,” Bastoni said. “And I don’t know that she ever will.”

Martinez will appear in Spartanburg federal court on July 25 to be sentenced by a judge.

READ: Full indictments for those arrested

While the case is closed locally, Bastoni said it’s believed there are many prostitutes, still un-identified, caught in the ring somewhere in the United States.

Many, he said, are likely victims of human trafficking.

He hopes that his case file will be used by other law enforcement agencies across the country as a foundation to build their own local cases, potentially connected to this particular ring.

If you or someone you know is involved in human trafficking and needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or visit humantraffickinghotline.org

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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