The Internet can be an impersonal place: You can observe the world at an aloof distance, and then just surf to another page. Manhattan resident Kathrine Gutierrez Hinds did the opposite—the unthinkable, really—and injected herself right into the lives of two young Russian women in serious danger, simply because she read about them online.
Late on a windy May night in Manhattan, Kathrine Gutierrez Hinds, a 24-year-old psychology student, rambled around her apartment, unable to sleep. Earlier in the evening, firemen had burst into her building to fight a basement fire. At least they hadn't ushered her outside in her pajamas, she thought, as she logged on to her laptop. That’s when she discovered an astonishing drama unfolding on the Internet—in real time.
He explained that two young Russian women, ages 18 and 21, had just landed in D.C. He knew one of them from teaching English in Russia a few years back. The women had come to the U.S. for summer jobs arranged by a Russian travel company. The problem: The jobs—lifeguarding at Virginia Beach—had fallen through. So the women had been told to call a man named George upon landing for instructions on new jobs.
George told them to do something that sounded sketchy: Hop on a bus to New York and go to a nightclub on Coney Island in Brooklyn, at midnight. Jobs as “hostesses” awaited them.
Daniel Reetz, the 28-year-old North Dakota blogger who issued the online alarm, didn’t like the sound of that. He told the women not to meet George. After all, who conducts job interviews of jet-lagged 18-year-olds in a bar, at midnight, on Coney Island? And who hasn’t seen those Law & Order episodes about foreign women tricked into prostitution?
Daniel was talking to the women by phone—but he couldn’t help in person. He was driving to California for a new job. The women, thrilled to be in the U.S. for the first time, dismissed his concerns. They intended to meet George. So Daniel posted his plea.
Within minutes of that post on MetaFilter this past May, people took notice. The website, which bills itself as a community weblog, is a forum where members post various links and comments, often about news of the day. Upon reading Daniel’s call for help, members got busy posting numbers for Russian embassies, human-rights groups, and police departments.
“Your friend has become a victim of human trafficking,” suggested one reader, who then expounded on the topic.
Replied a stressed-out Daniel: “I need some help, not a lecture on trafficking.”
Other readers researched the club on Coney Island, called Lux Lounge. One guy found a flier for a recent event there called “Ass-Travaganza.” Featured in the ad: a bronzed, near-naked woman wearing bright-yellow thong panties, and just one boot.
“This doesn’t inspire confidence,” the guy observed.
Another weighed in on the women’s fate: “If they go to NYC, they are signing up to be prostitutes. They will get their passports taken, they will be beaten, and the only way to get out will be to die . . .”
Sounds like an Internet conspiracy, but the bloggers were on to something. The situation had the textbook signs of human trafficking. There’s a formula to ensnaring young foreign women: A woman is offered a regular-sounding job, which falls through, leaving her in a vulnerable situation. She gets sent to a new “job,” where her passport is taken and she’s told she has to “earn” it back, usually through sex work. If she refuses, she faces beatings and threats against her family back home, according to the U.S. State Department.
The idea that women are being imported into this country to work as sex slaves may sound far-fetched, but human trafficking is a $32 billion global business, according to the State Department. As many as 17,500 people, mostly women and children, are trafficked into America each year, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They arrive not only from Russia, but from Mexico, Haiti, and India, among other countries.
Daniel was in no mood for drama. He had just left graduate school in North Dakota for a job as a camera-and-lens researcher at an arm of Walt Disney. He had a long drive to Los Angeles ahead. But he was adamant that the women not go to the club. So somewhere in Wyoming, he called the mysterious George, who had no last name.
“He could barely speak English,” Daniel recalls, “so he asked me to speak Russian.” But the man’s Russian was “even worse than mine,” Daniel says. “That freaked me out. I thought, This guy isn’t American, and he’s not Russian. Who is he?”
On the other side of the country, as the sun rose in Manhattan, news of the saga spread. Kathrine, keeping tabs on the posts on MetaFilter, became intrigued. A little bored, a little restless, the Colorado native had been taking it easy of late, recuperating from a recent surgery for endometriosis. On a whim, she decided: Why just sit there and watch these bizarre events as a bystander? Maybe she could help.
“I wrote to Dan and said, ‘If the women come to New York, I have a place where they can stay,’” she says.
She shared a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan's trendy Chelsea neighborhood with her husband, Kevin, a computer programmer, but she figured she could put the women up for a night or two. “It was pretty impulsive,” she says. “I just thought these women were in trouble, and it seemed like the right thing to do.”
Kathrine, herself a member of MetaFilter for more than three years, says she trusted Daniel even though she had never met him. “It’s a real community on the site,” she says, adding that she often reads discussions about personal relationships there. And so two strangers on opposite ends of the country came together, via the Internet, to try to rescue a pair of foreigners.
That afternoon, the Russian women got on the bus to New York to meet George. Daniel posted: “They are on the bus now arriving at 5 p.m.”
Kathrine sprang into action. She shed her sweats, threw on a pair of jeans, a top, and some eyeliner, and raced across town to New York City’s vast, grimy Port Authority bus terminal. There, in the bowels of the station, she went looking for the Russians. “It was terrifying,” Kathrine says. “I didn’t know if George would be there, or traffickers, or the Russian mob, or what.”
Her husband was at work, so she called a male friend to come wait with her. They waited—and noticed that they were being watched. “These two guys kept looking right at us,” she says. “They seemed out of place. In New York, people either ignore each other politely, or stare lecherously. They were just looking.”
When Kathrine spotted a pair of disoriented young women with suitcases, she approached. Sure enough, they were the Russians, and, Kathrine says, “They looked ready to throw up.”
Svetlana and Ksenya would agree with that assessment—they remember arriving in a daze. “We hadn’t recuperated from the flight. The time zones were different. My English was awful,” says Ksenya, 18, a tall, pretty college student who asked that her last name not be used.
The women had agreed to meet Kathrine, says Ksenya, because her friend Daniel sounded so frantic about it. But they were having a hard time believing they were in trouble. They trusted the Russian company they’d signed up with, and they were eager to start their summer jobs. After all, they had paid $3,000 apiece, with the help of their parents, for airfare, visas, and job arrangements. This trip to America had been a lifelong dream.
The women certainly didn’t want to call their parents and be told to go home, says Svetlana, 21, a petite, dark-haired college student who lives with her family in Moscow. Adds Ksenya: “I didn’t want to surrender with my tail between my legs, after just three days in America.”
Kathrine tried to escort everyone out of the confusing maze of the bus station, taking them up and down several wrong escalators. Hot on their trail: the two men who had been watching.
Outside at the taxi stand, the men approached and finally identified themselves: They turned out to be plain-clothes police. A Brooklyn District Attorney had sent them there, after being contacted by a human-rights activist who had also been following the drama online. The police asked a slew of questions, then drove everyone to Kathrine’s apartment. After sizing up the cramped, clothing-strewn space, the officers handed Kathrine a $20 bill to help buy dinner at a diner.
The Russians decided to stay the night. Daniel posted an update online: “They are safe with one of us.”
The relief was short-lived. The next day, the Russian company battered the women with calls on their cell phones, telling them they were breaking a contract and threatening lawsuits that would cost their families thousands of dollars. The women were told to fly to Texas immediately for new jobs as housekeepers. Or to go to San Diego to be pedicab drivers. Details on housing arrangements were uncomfortably vague.
George called the Russian women, too, asking where they were. They stayed put in Kathrine’s tiny apartment.
Did the women understand the concept of human trafficking? “I had heard about it—I’d seen it in movies and the news,” says Ksenya, who lives in Moscow with her boyfriend, a lawyer. “But personally I thought it was common in Eastern countries, not in America.”
Over on the West Coast, Daniel stayed vigilant, posting a new request online amid the swirling threats: “We need an immigration lawyer.”
Enter Lori Cohen, a New York–based attorney at the human-rights group Sanctuary for Families. When she saw the posts on MetaFilter, she arranged for a Russian-speaking colleague to meet with the two women. The colleague, also an attorney, explained to the women that the situation had the markings of a trafficking ring. Mobsters can make mountains of money from foreign women forced into sex work—as much as $1,000 a day per woman, as was the case with a pair of Ukrainian women rescued from a Detroit nightclub a few years back. Sometimes the clubs turn a blind eye, eager to have “exotic” dancers; other times they get a cut of the earnings from the women’s captors.
The attorney pulled out the naked-woman flyer from Lux Lounge. The image hit home. “We were finally able to understand the whole situation as it really was,” says Ksenya. “Svetlana was crying. It was then that we realized the full risk.”
The attorney had some advice for Kathrine, too: Remove all personal information from the Internet. “As far as I knew, I had two witnesses against the Russian mafia in my apartment,” Kathrine says. “I shut down my Facebook page. I freaked out.”
The apartment became consumed with paranoia. “I didn’t want to go outside. I felt like I had no protection. I couldn’t sleep,” says Kathrine, adding that even her husband, a quiet, understated guy who is rarely riled, was getting frazzled. But the plan was to help the women find new jobs. Daniel was busy following up on leads from MetaFilter members. Despite all the angst, the Russians were not ready to give up their summer in America.
So the Russian women camped out in the apartment’s only bedroom, a tiny, windowless back room, while Kathrine and her husband took over the equally tiny living room at the other end of a narrow hall. What did everyone do all day? Hog the bathroom. “It seemed like every time I wanted to go in there, someone was in the shower,” Kathrine says.
Online, bloggers dug up more dirt on Lux Lounge. One reader posted links to the club’s Facebook page, full of photos of women in lingerie and fishnets, dollar bills stuffed into their panties.
In the following days, with everyone going stir-crazy in the apartment, the Russian women started venturing out into Kathrine’s Chelsea neighborhood. Kathrine stayed at home. At the same time, back in Moscow, Ksenya’s boyfriend, the lawyer, tried to get the Russian company to back off.
The next week, Daniel arrived for a visit, piling into the apartment with everyone and sleeping in the living room with Kathrine and her husband. During the day, rather than “sitting there, sweating and freaking out,” Daniel says, he gave the Russians a tour of the city, hitting Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
On June 14, Lux Lounge closed its doors. The closing came about three weeks after the blog saga began, and about four months after the club’s grand opening. (The Daily Beast tried to contact the former owners of Lux Lounge and also the landlord listed for the property, but never got a reply.)
The police aren’t investigating. Detective Cheryl Crispin of the Deputy Commissioner’s Office in New York City says the case was closed after the two Russian women were interviewed the evening of their original arrival in New York, because they said they didn’t feel threatened at the time.
Explains Ken Franzblau, a trafficking expert who has worked with the human-rights group Equality Now and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services: “In a perfect TV world of law enforcement, sure, the police would bust open an international trafficking ring.” But that’s not the real world, he says, where police departments are understaffed and overworked. “In this case, the D.A. and the police ensured that these two women were safe.” That, he says, is a triumph.
In examining the women’s case, it becomes clear how easily they could have disappeared. Their seemingly simple trip—to come to the U.S. on a standard “cultural exchange” visa and get summer jobs—actually involves a tangle of U.S. and Russian visa sponsors, companies and middlemen. In short, the young women fell into a crack where everyone felt someone else was responsible.
For instance, the nonprofit organization that sponsored the women’s visas in the U.S. thought the two women were safely in Virginia Beach. That organization, the Council for Educational Travel USA, or CETUSA, often helps international students obtain J-1 “cultural exchange” visas. Arriving foreign students have three days upon arrival to check in with the organization, CETUSA says. If students don’t check in, the group tracks them down.
That three-day gap would have been just enough time for the two women to disappear.
On the Russian side, things get murkier. The two women’s travel plans involved two separate companies in Russia: One is a regular partner of CETUSA’s, but the other company was unknown to the U.S. organization. The latter is the company the women worked closely with. When contacted by The Daily Beast, that company denied knowing George.
CETUSA says it had confirmed that the Virginia Beach jobs actually existed before filing for visas for the two women. Jobs do sometimes fall through, though, and when that happens, CETUSA says, it helps students find new jobs.
However, CETUSA says it was unaware that the women’s jobs had fallen through until Daniel called. After talking to Daniel, the group says it phoned the women to warn them about the nightclub. But the women were already on the bus to New York at the time—not quite sure who to trust. “Our nerves were on edge,” Ksenya says.
Svetlana and Ksenya stayed with Kathrine for nearly a month. The Russian company eventually stopped calling, thanks to the efforts of Ksenya’s boyfriend, the Russian lawyer. He managed to get the company to sign a contract saying the women were free of obligation.
In mid-June, the two women flew home to Moscow, having had no luck getting jobs. Kathrine got some much-needed sleep.
The women were disappointed about their lost summer in the States. But “I fell in love with America,” says Ksenya. “People were all so willing to help us. Although there were many negatives, I still remember this as a very happy time.” She keeps in touch with her friend Daniel.
Svetlana says: “We met with real, honest, sincere people. I hope I can come again.”