A member of a Chinese acrobatic troupe escaped her employer late last month and told police that she and 20 other teammates were, in effect, slaves being held against their will in a southwest Las Vegas home.
The other members of the troupe then told authorities that they were fed little, paid next to nothing, and their lives were completely controlled by three Chinese men.
An FBI investigation led to a criminal complaint against the three men.
You Zhi Li, 38, Yang Shen, 21, and Jun Hu, 43, were arrested Monday and made their initial appearance in federal court Tuesday on involuntary servitude charges. The men were kept in custody and a preliminary hearing was scheduled for July 13.
After the woman who served as the troupe's interpreter fled Li's house and contacted law enforcement, representatives of Child Protective Services and the Clark County Department of Family Services conducted a health and welfare check at a home at 9882 Pioneer Ave., near Grand Canyon Drive and Desert Inn Road, on Friday.
They interviewed 14 residents of the home, including five juveniles ages 14 to 17, according to a criminal complaint and officials familiar with the case.
The victims said Li promised them $300 to $1,600 a month to perform with the China Star Acrobats, a team that traveled and performed at schools across the country.
"It's a cultural program," said Anthony Wright, Li's court-appointed defense attorney. "Chinese folks get to come over here and learn about America."
But the acrobats, prosecutors said on the eve of Independence Day, were not treated to a land of the free. Instead, they were forced to stay in Li's home. Four to six team members lived in each bedroom. Most of them had been brought to Las Vegas months ago.
They told authorities that they were fed minimal amounts of instant noodles, rice and vegetables twice a day. They said they sometimes had to perform twice a day, were awakened early and didn't get to go to sleep until very late.
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.
One girl who performed as a contortionist told authorities that she was being paid $50 a month. She said she was instructed to tell detectives she earned $1,600 a month.
Another child told federal agents that she signed a contract for $1,600, but did not know whether that was per week or per month. She said her manager in China had not received any money for her performances.
A boy told authorities he had been traveling with the troupe for two years, receiving $100 per month instead of the $400 per month he was promised.
"Li stated that he made agreements with the managers of the performers in China, whereas, he would send the managers $800 a month for each performer," the complaint says. "Li stated he does not pay the performers a salary but gives them between $50 and $100 per month to live on."
When the acrobats were not performing, they were forced to do chores for another Chinese man, who was identified as "Benny." The acrobats cleaned or renovated homes and did lawn work, the complaint says.
"This company has been using these children and young adults for its own benefit," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Bork said Tuesday.
Bork questioned Li's contention that he only makes about $30,000 a year.
"It just doesn't look right to have this kind of income and these kinds of assets," Bork said.
Bork said Li owns a $320,000 home, has paid off a $170,000 home and has $110,000 in his business' bank account. In addition, Li has $30,000 in his personal bank account and owns four vans worth approximately $25,000 apiece, Bork said. Records on the Clark County assessor's Web site indicate Li owns the home on Pioneer and another home right around the corner, at 3434 Gosling St. Li is listed as the co-owner of both along with Kong Hong Wen, according to the assessors office.
Nobody answered the door at 9882 Pioneer on Tuesday, but the house appeared to be in pristine condition. The well-manicured lawn had but one dead palm tree branch on it. Clotheslines with shirts hanging on them could be seen in the backyard.
Martin Hankinson, 74, who lives across the street from the home, said he would often see people doing exercises in the garage.
"They were not boisterous. They were model citizens. I wouldn't have known anything was happening over there that wasn't on the up and up," he said.
Mike Briggs, 67, who has lived next door to the house for more than two years, said that sometimes excessive amounts of trash were put out for collection in front of the house, but his Chinese neighbors "weren't very noisy" and they "were always friendly."
They would barbecue often in the backyard and wave at Buddy, Briggs' cocker spaniel. Sometimes Briggs saw them on the sidewalk in front of the home or walking around the block.
"It's not like they didn't have a chance to leave," Briggs said, adding he wouldn't know if threats were made against their families, as authorities allege.
"They didn't appear to be happy, but they weren't screaming, 'Help me,' " he said.
A neighbor told him on Monday that the FBI was outside his house.
He ran out to look and couldn't believe the number of people he saw coming out of the home. "I never saw more than six or eight of them," he said. On Monday, he saw 16, nine of them were women or girls, he said.
"They were smiling when they came out. Nobody was in handcuffs," Briggs said.
FBI spokesman David Staretz said the acrobats were overjoyed at being liberated. "They literally hugged the investigators when they arrived," he said.
Briggs had figured it was a flophouse for legal or illegal immigrants who were new to Las Vegas. "Not too many spoke good English," he said.
Bork said Shen and Hu are not citizens of the United States and it is unclear whether they are living in the country legally. U.S. Magistrate Judge George Foley scheduled for Tuesday a hearing to determine the status of their citizenship.
The acrobats' immigration status was unclear Tuesday. Foreign trafficking victims who are cooperating with law enforcement are eligible for "T visas." Such victims can eventually apply for green cards.
The acrobats are being provided shelter, food and medical attention, said Terri Miller, director of the Anti-Trafficking League Against Slavery, known as the ATLAS task force, which was formed last year under the auspices of the Metropolitan Police Department to combat human trafficking in the Las Vegas Valley.
The ATLAS 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.
Social service providers also have been meeting with the acrobats. "They are receiving much nurturing care," Miller said.
Officials estimate that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year. Though it is unknown how many of those victims end up in Southern Nevada, federal officials have identified Las Vegas as one of 17 cities where human trafficking is a concern.
On April 21, authorities served search warrants at eight residences within a radius of about a mile from Spring Mountain Road and Arville Street.
Police said the houses and apartments were operating as brothels and that some, if not all, of the 25 women found working as prostitutes at those residences were victims of human trafficking.