Collaborative Enforcement of Labor Trafficking Laws, Law Enforcement and NGO’s Working Together
Written by Detective Joseph Scaramucci for the International Association of Chiefs of Police blog, used with permission
Restaurant owners Zhi Lin and Ya Li Yang were arrested for Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity on June 1, 2018 following an investigation by the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office in Waco, TX.
The Vegas Chinese Buffet was a well-known Chinese buffet in Waco, a city with a population of almost 140,000 people. On a daily basis anyone watching could have seen the employees; all 18 of them arriving crammed in a van, while the owners showed to work comfortably in their Porsche.
After months of surveillance and Intel gathering, detectives with the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office would finally get a break in their case – a human trafficking victim fired by Zhi Lin. The victim in the case reached out to an international human trafficking organization based out of Waco, called UnBound.
The victim contacted UnBound, who contacted Detective Scaramucci to complete the investigation. Before the day was over, a single cooperator was able to confirm months of intel, tying various aspects of employment together, and providing previously unknown information.
Over the next few weeks Detectives worked collaboratively with different agencies, pulling together several disciplines together to put an end to the trafficking, carry out a victim centered investigation, and ensure the business was permanently closed.
Detectives worked with the Fire Marshal’s Office to assist with site inspections, giving Intel of minors working out of site of the public in the kitchen. The Health Department assisted with shutting the business down the day of the raid, to ensure other parties couldn’t take over while the owners were in jail. Child Protective Services assisted with placement for the suspects’ children, reducing law enforcement’s need to do so, and providing valuable interviews with the children who were living a life among traffickers. ICE provided assistance with on-site immigration statuses. Texas DPS assisted with interviews and searching for evidence. All occurring while at the same time Unbound provided victim services, locations for safe houses, translators, and any requested items to ensure the victims were assisted from the very beginning.
During the interviews and evidence gathering process on scene, it was determined that many of the workers weren’t even paid by the owners. Some received only their tips, and some had to give half of their tips to the owners. Most were fearful of deportation, and were working to pay debt accrued to be able to work at the restaurant.
Following the arrest of the suspects, the trafficking victims were turned over to UnBound for assistance, and search warrants were served at two residences. First, at an apartment provided by the owner to house the Guatemalan workers, who were referred to as “amigos” by the owners, and second at the home belonging to the owners which is where the Chinese workers referred to as “servants” were held.
Inside their two bedroom apartment, nine Guatemalan workers lived were provided an area of each crammed room for their personal effects, and area to sleep. The rooms had no TV, nothing connecting them to the outside world. Workers were at the restaurant approximately 13 hours a day, 6 days a week. They were picked up every morning for work in the van, and dropped off at night afterwards. In their time off, they did not have transportation to leave the apartment.
A second warrant was served on the home belonging to the suspects, a two story 3,300 square foot home in a suburb a few miles north of Waco. Inside this house, Lin and Yang lived upstairs with their two children, while the remaining 9 employees lived downstairs.
Inside the residence the owners began to do their own interior construction, taking 2’ x 4’s and sheetrock, and making living quarters for the employees. The living quarters were designed to be about the size of a normal jail cell. These victims also had no TV, and no connection to the world around them in the house.
“Servants” as they were referred to had a daily chore list to complete on their day off from the restaurant, including cleaning, cooking, and child care. In order to do their laundry, the victims had to provide their own change to use the coin operated washer and dryer that were cleaned of the money by Lin and Yang.
Following the events of June 1st, the U.S. Department of Labor has begun to assist with the investigation, Immigration Attorneys have been provided to the victims in this case, Child Protective Services is providing a safe residence for the children, and victims have been provided a safe place to assist with their transitions.
The hard work associated with this case by all parties, and entities has led to several victories in this case both in the legal system, civil system, and for the best outcome to the victims, showing that you don’t always get lucky in Vegas.