Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

WACO, Texas (KWTX) McLennan County sheriff’s deputies, assisted by seven local, state and federal authorities, executed a search warrant at a Waco restaurant Friday morning after a three-month human trafficking investigation that started with a tip from one of the alleged victims.

(Photo by Matthew Ablon)

Originally 19 people were detained - two ended up arrested and 17 were determined to be victims - at the Vegas Buffet at 505 North Valley Mills Dr. late Friday morning, McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said.

“It’s truly a textbook case of labor trafficking,” McNamara said.

The restaurant was shutdown.

“Sex as far as we can tell is not involved in this,” he said. "But these labor traffickers are on the same level as people running massage parlors: they're getting wealthy by exploiting people."

The whistleblower, who was at the Texas Workforce Center wanting to file a report, told investigators that the workers, who are from Guatemala and China, were paying between $2,500 and $80,000 for entry into the United States.

They said the Guatemalans were smuggled through the desert and into Houston, and the Chinese came in through New York City.

With the help of interpreters, McNamara said authorities interviewing the workers determined they were being exploited and were victims.

Some were children.

“There are many people in there who are undocumented,” he said. "14, 15 years on up, we have interviewed a seven-year-old child in there."

With the help of local advocacy organization UnBound, McNamara said they've determined the victims from China were working legally in the U.S. temporarily, but none were citizens.

Two of child workers attend China Spring Elementary School, according to search warrant affidavits.

They were taken into CPS custody, McNamara said.

The people listed as their parents by China Spring ISD, Zhi Lin and Ya Li Yang, are two of the owners of Vegas Buffet, officials said.

Lin was arrested and charged with engaging in organized crime.

His wife, Yang, was charged with human trafficking of persons.

Both were booked into the McLennan County Jail and remained there Friday night waiting to be seen by a judge.

McNamara had some harsh words for the couple.

"I'm fuming at the audacity of these dirty son of a bi****s," said McNamara. "Their victims are living on twin-sized mattresses with no TV, the washer and dryer in the house was like a laundromat: they had to pay every time they washed their clothes."

Besides the restaurant, authorities searched two other locations where they believed the victims were being housed including the Avila Apartments at 5000 Sanger Drive in Waco, and the bosses' home at 9409 Colfax Drive in China Spring, according to the search warrant affidavits.

McNamara said they seized more than $50,000 in assets.

"We seized everything but their dirty underwear," said McNamara.

The property included a black Porsche, an Alfa Romeo, a big-screen TV, and designer clothing and accessories including a $1,000 pair of shoes, an $800 leather belt, a $700 wallet, and a Hermes purse purchased at the Bellagio in Las Vegas for $12,500.

"These people are living like kings and queens, these people are living it up in Las Vegas making the victims that are working for them pay for their own clothes when they have to wash them," said McNamara.

"It's a really sad situation, they're taking advantage of these unfortunate people, and they're getting rich while these other people are suffering."

McNamara said the husband and wife refer to the victims as their "servants" and force them to work six days a week at the restaurant, then on their one day off, they're given a "to-do" list of chores.

The informant also told authorities all of the 17 workers are paid below minimum wage, especially the children, and are told if they don’t pay the money they owe the smugglers, they’ll be deported.

The Chinese workers are assigned to the floor and the Guatemalan workers to the kitchen, the informant told authorities who said they verified the information by going in undercover.

None of the victims have cars, McNamara said.

"We believe that half of the group has been kept in one location, half at another and they're bused in with vans every day and then they're taken back," he said. "They are exploiting these unfortunate individuals."

“We’re going to do everything we can to determine the best outcome for the victims,” he said.

The investigation and the raid Friday involved the Texas Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Texas Child Protective Services, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the Waco-McLennan County Health Department, the Waco Fire Marshal's Office and UnBound, a local group that assists victims of human trafficking.

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