Several young members of a Chinese acrobatic troupe were hanging out Tuesday afternoon in their southwest Las Vegas home, snacking on cereal and chocolate bars, surfing the Internet or chatting on the phone.
Daniel Chau, who identified himself as a partner in China Star Acrobats, said the casual, laid-back atmosphere is common in the home and that recent claims of troupe members being held against their will are just a plot by some acrobats to stay in the United States.
"They somehow found out they can get a green card if they become a victim of involuntary servitude," Chau said of nine troupe members who the FBI has identified as victims of human trafficking. "There was a mastermind behind this."
A member of the Chinese acrobatic troupe told police last month that she and other teammates were, in effect, slaves being held against their will in a home at 9882 Pioneer Ave., near Grand Canyon Drive and Desert Inn Road.
Other members of the troupe told authorities they were fed little, paid next to nothing, and their lives were controlled by three Chinese men.
You Zhi Li, 38, Yang Shen, 21, and Jun Hu, 43, were arrested July 2 on involuntary servitude charges. The men remain in custody.
But Chau said the three are honest men trying to run an honest business.
"We never thought this would happen," he said. "They (the acrobats) all have freedom."
Vivian Lu, a 24-year-old member of the China Star Acrobats who serves as an interpreter for the group, said troupe members were paid on time and never mistreated.
"The salary might be low, but we knew that when we decided to come," she said. Their room and board also are paid for.
Lu said she receives $500 a month in salary. She is paid more than other troupe members because she works as a translator, she said.
Other troupe members are paid $50 to $100 in "allowance," she said.
"We don't determine their living allowance," Chau said. "It's determined by their troupe leader" in China.
Chau, who has been with China Star Acrobats for five years and is now overseeing day-to-day operations, said the performers each also earn about $1,000 a month that is sent to their acrobatic troupes in China for safekeeping.
The acrobats receive the money in a lump sum upon their return, after nine or 10 months.
After a woman who also served as an interpreter for the troupe fled the house last month and contacted law enforcement, representatives of Child Protective Services and the Clark County Department of Family Services conducted a health and welfare check there.
Authorities interviewed 14 residents of the home, including five juveniles ages 14 to 17, according to a criminal complaint and officials familiar with the case.
Troupe members said Li promised them $300 to $1,600 a month to perform with the group that travels and performs at hundreds of schools across the country.
They told authorities that they were fed minimal amounts of instant noodles, rice and vegetables twice a day.
Li confiscated visas and passports, according to the complaint. He warned the team members that the company would eavesdrop on phone calls made back home. One of the teens told authorities that he feared for the safety of his family in China, and that he had witnessed Hu beat another performer during a personal dispute, according to the complaint.
Several troupe members told authorities they were being paid less than promised.
When the acrobats were not performing, they were forced to do chores for another Chinese man, who was identified as "Benny," the complaint says.
Chau said much of what was mentioned in the complaint was the result of misunderstandings or part of a scheme to earn residency in the United States by way of "T visas," which are available to foreign human trafficking victims who are cooperating with law enforcement agencies. Such victims can eventually apply for green cards.
Motioning toward the well-stocked kitchen, Chau said food was never rationed at the home.
He said troupe managers did hold passports for safekeeping.
"They are on the road performing five days a week," he said. "We kept the passports for them. They could ask for them back at any time."
Chau said none of the troupe members was ever threatened or beaten, and that they had volunteered to do chores and lawn work for "Benny," a friend of Chau's.
"They were bored," he said of the troupe members. "They were begging us to take them with us (to do the work). We barbecued afterwards."
Troupe members on Tuesday immediately invited into the home a reporter and photographer who arrived unannounced.
Chau said the acrobat who first contacted authorities was the mastermind behind a scheme to get green cards for the troupe members, who he said are in the country on temporary visas.
"She had everything planned before she walked out the door," he said.
But Terri Miller, director of the local Anti-Trafficking League Against Slavery, known as the ATLAS task force, said she is convinced that troupe members identified as such by the FBI were in fact human trafficking victims, not opportunists looking for green cards.
"If the FBI and the U.S. attorney have identified them as human trafficking victims, there is no doubt in my mind," she said.
She added that evidence of human trafficking is not always obvious.
"There are usually no physical chains," she said. "They are kept bound through coercion, force or threat of force. There are threats to their families back home, threats to their own personal safety, threats of being persecuted by our judicial system."
FBI spokesman David Staretz in a voice mail message referred calls to the U.S. attorney's office. A spokesperson for that office did not return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.
Federal officials have identified Las Vegas as one of 17 cities where human trafficking is a concern.
The ATLAS task force was formed last year under the auspices of Las Vegas police to combat human trafficking in the valley. The task force includes the FBI, federal immigration officials, the Salvation Army, Safe House, the Rape Crisis Center, the Boyd Law School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and other organizations.
The acrobats who left the home with authorities are now being provided shelter, food and medical attention, Miller said.