The federal government dismissed charges Thursday against three Chinese nationals accused of involuntary servitude in connection with a troupe of acrobats who claimed they were forced to perform and held against their will at a Las Vegas home.
The motion to dismiss the complaint was filed shortly before You Zhi Li, 38, Yang Shen, 21, and Jun Hu, 43, were scheduled to appear before District Judge George Foley for a preliminary hearing.
Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre said a magistrate judge initially approved the complaint filed July 2 in federal court.
“Upon further investigation, however, the United States has determined that it has been unable to develop evidence sufficient to prove those charges beyond a reasonable doubt and therefore decided to dismiss the charges,” Myhre said Thursday.
Myhre’s comments were limited, and FBI spokesman David Staretz declined to make a statement. But sources close to the investigation said the case fell apart because of questions about the credibility of the government’s key witness.
Daniel Chau, who oversaw the acrobat show while the three leaders were in jail, declined to discuss the government’s decision to dismiss the charges. Chau referred calls to defense attorney Gabriel Grasso, who represented Li.
“Mr. Grasso did a good job having the case dismissed,” Chau said. “We thank the government and the FBI very much.”
Grasso said: “Mr. Li is very relieved.”
Under federal labor laws, the government would have had to prove the acrobats’ performances were “obtained by threats of serious harm to, or physical restraint against the person(s), or by means of abuse or threatened abuse.”
The complaint was filed after a female member of the China Star Acrobats who served as the group’s interpreter fled a southwest valley home, near Grand Canyon Drive and Desert Inn Road, and contacted authorities.
She told police that she and 20 other teammates were crammed into a house guarded by the three men.
According to the complaint, she said the team was lured to the United States from China with promises of generous pay and an opportunity to tour the country and learn about its culture.
Instead, she said, the acrobats were paid next to nothing.
Despite rigorous workouts and performances twice a day, team members were provided only minimal amounts of vegetables, instant noodles and rice twice a day, the complaint said.
The team was awoken early and not allowed to go to bed until late.
The complaint accused Li of confiscating troupe members’ passports and visas and monitoring phone calls home.
The acrobatic team included five juveniles ranging in age from 14 to 17, the complaint said.
One girl who performed as a contortionist explained to authorities that she was paid $50 a month. She said the three men instructed her to tell detectives that she earned $1,600 a month.
“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 said.
“Li stated he does not pay the performers a salary but gives them between $50 and $100 per month to live on,” the complaint said.
The informant told authorities that when the acrobats were not performing or training, they were forced to do chores for another Chinese man she referred to as “Benny.”