How police brought down a tech-savvy prostitution network in Bellevue
Story by Lynn Thompson
Illustration by Gabriel Campanario
The Seattle Times
Published July 26, 2017
Men cruised the hallway of an upscale Bellevue apartment building, checking their cellphones and scanning the unit numbers before pausing at a door that swung open even before they knocked.
A neighbor grew suspicious and alerted police, saying she believed the woman living down the hall was involved in sex work.
The men “are all ages and body sizes,” the tipster wrote in an April 2015 email to Bellevue police. They visit “at all hours of the day.”
The email set in motion an eight-month investigation that revealed South Korean prostitutes were working out of a dozen luxury Bellevue apartments. The young women, who often spoke limited English, were hired by an “agency” and worked in the apartment for several weeks before they moved on to other cities.
Many of their customers were members of a secretive network of men who not only paid for sex — in some cases scores of times — but would also write detailed online reviews of their encounters and encourage others to do the same.
Using pseudonyms like “TomCat007,” “Captain America” and “Tahoe Ted,” the men posted thousands of sexually explicit reviews on a carefully curated, Seattle-based website called The Review Board. In great detail, they rated a woman’s performance, energy level and physical attributes, and offered recommendations as if they were reviewing restaurants. The website also accepted free advertisements from prostitutes.
Some likened The Review Board to Yelp, only for paid sex.
“Recommend? ‘If you are a red-blooded male, (by which I mean Yep.)’ ” wrote one reviewer.
“Hell to the yes,” wrote another. “I love tiny Asian girls. And Lomi is as tiny as they get.”
While the men came from different, mostly white-collar backgrounds, prosecutors said a disproportionate number were tech workers from the Eastside, men comfortable using their browsers to shop for what they wanted, men who could afford the $300-an-hour rate for sex. One customer, a software-development director for Amazon, even helped construct and maintain prostitution-related websites.
Many of the men considered themselves “hobbyists,” their shared interest in prostitutes bringing them together in a kind of men’s club with invitation-only parties at Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas.
The Review Board, which had been an online forum for sex buyers since 2001, boasted it had 23,000 members, most of them in the Pacific Northwest, in 2015.
There were many other similar sites — more than 100 in King County alone.
A few dozen high-frequency Review Board participants formed what they called “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” that focused almost exclusively on South Korean prostitutes. Kgirldelights, an online advertising and booking site for South Korean prostitutes built by members of The League, was particularly popular, with more than 4 million hits in a single month.
Together, the websites ensured the women in the expensive Bellevue apartments had a steady stream of customers — and that the customers had a steady supply of new women.
“The internet has greased the wheels on illegal sexual exploitation. It’s made it so easy for men to get involved,” said Valiant Richey, a King County senior deputy prosecuting attorney.
Richey would be among the first to argue that the online group of sex buyers had gone from isolated men booking “dates” with prostitutes to an organized, criminal enterprise that promoted illegal commercial sex. After Bellevue police and King County sheriff’s deputies infiltrated and busted the group, prosecutors would charge its members not with the misdemeanor crime of patronizing a prostitute, but with promoting prostitution, a felony.
Moreover, it targeted the rapidly growing number of sex buyers who no longer have to cruise along Aurora Avenue North or International Boulevard South — risking a “date” with an undercover cop — to pay for sex.
“The internet … created a market that wasn’t there before, men who wouldn’t go on the street to encounter someone who was prostituting,” King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg noted in 2014. “They’re comfortable on the computer, and with a couple clicks of a mouse, they can order someone up for sex.”
But the bust also drew condemnation from proponents of the legalization of prostitution — and from some of the men facing criminal charges — who saw an overzealous government interfering with what they said was a reasonable exchange of sex for money among consenting adults. Several insisted The Review Board helped ensure the safety of the women selling sex in the Bellevue apartments because members developed an online identity and history.
A “business plan”
When the anonymous tip about the Avalon Meydenbauer apartment landed in his inbox, Bellevue police Detective Ben Richey (no relation to prosecutor Richey) quickly learned that the well-visited unit was leased to Donald Mueller, a 58-year-old former marijuana dealer. Richey and another detective arranged a meeting with Mueller at a downtown Bellevue coffee shop and told him they thought he was renting the apartment for use as a brothel.
Without actual evidence of sex being sold in his apartment, police didn’t have enough to arrest Mueller. But he not only confirmed their suspicions, he seemed eager to share the details.
He told the detectives that he was a “hobbyist” — the name the online sex buyers used to refer to themselves — and that he was active on The Review Board as well as several other sites that featured escort ads. His Review Board screen name, or handle, was “Woodstock.”
Mueller had logged 4,339 posts on The Review Board over the previous few years, was a moderator of the site and one of the region’s highest-frequency sex buyers.
As Mueller explained it, he’d been approached by a former girlfriend and prostitute who suggested he rent an apartment where she could see clients. He’d keep $100 from each customer and she’d get $200. He would handle advertising, screening and booking.
With marijuana legalized and his pot sales faltering, Mueller told the detectives, he saw prostitution as a potentially lucrative new “business plan.”
By running three different women, who each averaged about five “dates” per day, Mueller said his take was about $1,500 per day — or more than $450,000 a year.
Mueller recruited primarily young South Korean women, some who came directly from South Korea and others who were already working in other U.S. cities. He and another brothel manager told detectives the women or a relative had typically gotten into debt and they were forced to work as prostitutes to pay it off.
Mueller acknowledged what he was doing was illegal.
Less than two weeks later, detectives spotted online ads for Mueller’s South Korean prostitutes, but this time working out of a different Bellevue apartment building. In response to the police questioning and neighbor complaints, he had moved his operation — five blocks away.
As the founder and operator of The Review Board, Sigurds Zitars, aka “Tahoe Ted,” tightly limited ads for Asian prostitutes. The reason, he later told undercover detectives, was he believed that Asian escorts drew the scrutiny of law enforcement alert to the possibility that the women might be trafficked around the U.S. and under someone else’s control.
But Mueller, a good friend of Zitars, was pressing him for more publicity on The Review Board for the South Korean women working out of his Bellevue apartment.
Zitars, 61 and a retired accountant, struck some sex workers as “standoffish.” Others called him “creepy.”
“He was hard to like,” said Sol Finer, an independent sex worker and an advocate for legalized prostitution. She said, “His attitude was, ‘This is my board and if you don’t like it, you can go somewhere else.’ ”
Zitars’ mantra was “no drama.” He would remove posts that hinted at underage prostitutes or women being run by a pimp. He kicked off anyone he thought was rude or crude and those who tried to sneak back using a new handle. He carefully screened the women who wanted to advertise on the board.
Three sex workers interviewed for this story said that very few African-American or Latina prostitutes were ever allowed to advertise on The Review Board.
Zitars was interviewed by Seattle Met magazine for a 2008 story on prostitution in the city. Using his Tahoe Ted screen name, he explained that he had been buying sex since a memorable experience after college when he ended up at a posh Bellevue condo with two gorgeous strippers.
His online persona was of a worldly and experienced sex buyer who was far too careful and discriminating to ever find himself in a tawdry motel room with an undercover cop posing as a prostitute.
“In his mind, he was above it all, including law enforcement,” said Detective Richey.
Zitars’ goal was to create a one-stop shopping experience for prostitution in the Northwest, and he was proud of the online community of sex buyers and providers he’d brought together. They chatted via computer, gave advice about seeing prostitutes in other cities, recommended the best hotels to conduct business and how to avoid the scrutiny of the front desk.
Zitars and other core members of The Review Board threw invitation-only get-togethers at local bars and brew pubs, hosted quarterly karaoke nights and dressed up for holiday-themed parties. They referred to each other only by their pseudonyms, the women as well as the men.
“It was totally friendly. It was nice to put a face to a name,” said one longtime sex provider. “Both the men and the women were there to meet each other.”
Another sex worker who goes by the name Sweet Amy Nicole added, “We could trade tips on how to verify the identity of the gents, for example. Or how to tell if a customer was dumb versus malicious. If you want to be safe, it helps to talk with the other girls.”
But another woman who advertised on The Review Board said the parties were like a “pickup bar on steroids.”
Alisa Bernard was a teenage runaway and a child sex-abuse survivor when she turned to prostitution at age 18. She has a vivid memory of meeting Zitars.
“He was sitting in a booth that was slightly raised, looking out over the dance floor at the girls, as if he were thinking, ‘These are all mine. These are my toys,’ ” said Bernard, now a board member of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors, which works to support women leaving the life of paid sex work.
With Mueller and other Review Board regulars arguing for more access to South Korean women, Zitars eventually relaxed his guard.
“Mueller twisted Ted’s arm to start advertising his girls,” said Detective Richey.
Many men who posted on The Review Board would later claim they thought the online resource kept women working as prostitutes safe by giving the sex buyers an online presence and identity.
But Bernard said that during the time she advertised herself on The Review Board, she was raped multiple times, strangled and held against her will.
“These were all Review Board guys,” she recalled.
Richey, the deputy prosecutor, said the relationship between the women performing sex acts and the men paying for them is inherently unequal. The men were typically professionally accomplished, culturally assured and fully expecting to get their money’s worth.
The South Korean women, by contrast, were typically young, isolated in a foreign country, traveling with little more than a suitcase full of clothes, maybe overstaying a tourist visa or brought to the U.S. with forged documents. Many communicated with the men through a smartphone translator app — or hand gestures.
Richey is even more adamant that what the South Korean prostitutes were doing could not be called consensual because they were being paid.
“What you have is someone paying this person essentially to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’ Because as several of the buyers on this board observed, these women, as a leisure activity, are not looking to have sex with 10 guys in a day. They’re doing it for the money.”
He said research internationally has found that more than 70 percent of prostitutes have been the victim of physical assault — rapes, beatings or armed robberies — and that despite screening clients and checking references, they are vulnerable because they typically work in isolated apartments, alone.
“You never know who is going to walk in the door,” Richey said.
In March 2015, Kittaporn Saosawatsri opened the door of her apartment at the Avalon Meydenbauer to a man with a knife.
A Thai native, she was 37, an independent sex worker and older than most of the Asian prostitutes who advertised online. Her ad on Backpage.com said she was 27.
Her client that night was Song Wang, a Chinese immigrant living in Newcastle who’d racked up $25,000 in gambling debts, had been accused of stealing from the auto body shop where he worked and was desperate for cash. He called several other prostitutes, trying to make a date for that night, before reaching Saosawatsri.
He then set fire to clothing inside the woman’s closet.
An hour later, firefighters responding to a building alarm found Saosawatsri’s body slumped against her bedroom mattress, dead from more than 20 stab wounds.
The murder set off a flurry of emails and postings on The Review Board.
Detective Richey said the men contrasted Saosawatsri’s situation with those of the South Korean women advertised on the website. She didn’t have a booker to screen clients. She listed herself on national sites like Backpage.com and Eros.com, not the more selective Review Board.
But mostly, the detective said, the men on The Review Board worried that they’d lose access to their “girls.”
The online sex-buying investigation that began in April 2015 uncovered the interlocking organizations that ran the prostitution businesses in Bellevue.
Mueller and others set up “agencies” that provided the women with apartments, advertising, customers and condoms. Each agency employed a booker — in Mueller’s case, he handled the booking himself — to screen clients and schedule dates. A first-time customer had to provide references or a piece of photo ID.
Among the emails seized when the websites were taken down by law enforcement in January 2016 were hundreds of pieces of identification submitted with the customers’ first request for a “date.” These included photographs of employee badges from Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing, as well as LinkedIn accounts, business letterheads, passports and even family photos.
“They’re sending their personal information to a criminal enterprise. Wow!” said Tor Kraft, one of the undercover Bellevue police detectives who worked the case.
Bookers told the customers that they needed the IDs in case anything happened to the women. But Kraft said what they were really doing was protecting themselves from law enforcement. If someone emailed in a photo of his Microsoft badge, on an email with a Microsoft address, he likely wasn’t a cop.
Once the men visited a prostitute, they were encouraged by other customers online to write reviews. That in turn drove more men, who were searching prostitution-related internet sites, to book dates, which in turn prompted the opening of more apartment brothels to meet the growing demand.
That’s when Deputy Prosecutor Richey and the detectives on the case had a collective realization that what they were seeing was more than just men hooking up with prostituted women and writing about their experiences. What they were investigating resembled an organized-crime network. And they needed to act.
Men were not only writing reviews, but were serving as references for each other to book dates. They were helping to connect prostitution agencies with photographers for advertising pictures and placing those ads with internet escort sites. Using their tech savvy, some were building prostitution websites.
Several of the men were even putting their names on apartment leases and driving the young women who were cycling through Bellevue to and from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. In other words, they were operating more as pimps than isolated buyers.
At the same time, prosecutor Richey said, there was an explosion in the number of residential brothels on the Eastside.
“We were getting tips from neighbors, getting tips from landlords, people reporting it to Bellevue police. What we were seeing was the whole picture — organized online groups of buyers and the brothels serving them.”
The target of the investigation would be high-volume users, men who were influential in driving business to the South Korean prostitutes, or who took an organizing role, such as forming The League to publicize the agencies and apartments. The prosecutors believed they had evidence of promoting, through the reviews the men themselves wrote.
But they didn’t know who most of them were. They only had their handles.
In April 2015, King County sheriff’s Detective Luke Hillman was ending his work on a case involving a Thai prostitution ring in Bellevue when police turned their attention to the growing activity involving South Korean women. Hillman, using an alias, started asking questions on The Review Board.
He recalls he was getting very little traction until one of the members told him he needed to book more dates and write more reviews.
With so many reviews of so many women online, Hillman said, it was easy to plagiarize, creatively writing variants of the others’ explicit commentary. Once he started posting reviews, Hillman said, the same member invited him to join the newly formed League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the group of about 50 men from around the country who promoted South Korean prostitutes.
He was also invited to a members-only meet-and-greet at the Tap House Grill in Bellevue in June that year. At that meeting, Hillman said, the other men, awkwardly at first, discussed their sexual encounters, the sex acts various prostitutes were willing to perform as well as the prices, and the duration of their visits. The conversations became so explicit, Hillman said, that other bar patrons seated nearby grew visibly uncomfortable and moved away.
Hillman said the men speculated that the young women were likely trafficked and had little choice but to work as prostitutes. One said they weren’t the smartest people or they wouldn’t have ended up in sex work, he recalled.
Richey, the deputy prosecutor, said that until Hillman was invited to join, law enforcement didn’t know there was a League, or who its core members were. It was one of the big breaks in the case.
Hillman would attend four more meet-and-greets before January.
In October 2015, Mueller and Zitars planned a Halloween party to circulate Mueller’s prostitutes. Mueller asked Hillman, who was still working undercover, to drive his women and two others from another Bellevue apartment brothel, Golden Blossom.
Hillman wore a wire. Another detective posed as an Uber driver. Richey, the Bellevue detective, trailed in an unmarked car and listened in on Hillman.
Out in the parking lot, police were secretly photographing cars that arrived and the men who got out. Over the next two months they started to match the license plates to driver’s-license photos. They also began matching the handles with the names and addresses of the inner members of The League.
And for the men who hadn’t attended a party, police got search warrants to go after their email accounts and the internet provider addresses that linked the pseudonyms to their real names.
The kgirldelights website had a million page views in November 2015. In December, one of The League members wrote, “We are some lucky sons of bitches to be K-fans in Seattle right now, my brothers. I don’t know how the market is going to sustain this amount of top talent, but I’ve decided to stop caring about it and ride the K-train until it crashes to a halt.”
On Jan. 5, 2016, Richey, the deputy prosecutor, sat in a car in a Bellevue Burger King parking lot, across the street from the Pumphouse Bar & Grill, where members of The League were gathering. Hillman, the undercover detective, was inside, again wearing a wire. About 40 police were staged around the bar and outside.
Richey could see cars pulling in and the men getting out: Woodstock, TomCat007, Hashi, Husky — seven men in all.
Richey said his strongest memory of the night was how noisy the restaurant was on the audio recorded from inside. As police rushed in, there was a sudden hush — except for the men seated with Hillman. “The group at the table was oblivious” to the uniformed officers filing inside and kept talking among themselves, the prosecutor said.
Then Richey heard a sheriff’s deputy tell the men, “Stand up. You’re under arrest.”
For Richey, the takedown was a metaphor for how The League and The Review Board operated. A group of men so focused on their own activity, so eager to encourage and support each other in seeking out prostitutes, that they’d completely lost sight that they were involved in a criminal enterprise.
Four others who weren’t at the Pumphouse gathering, including Zitars and Paul “GoGetter” Rhinehart, were arrested at their homes.
The next morning police served search warrants on 12 brothels.
Sumit Virmani, 42, director of World Wide Health for Microsoft, had a “date” that morning with “Raina” at the BellCentre Apartments in Bellevue, according to charging documents. A King County deputy approached him while he was outside and told him the apartment, which doubled as the Superstar GFE (Girl Friend Experience) brothel, was now a crime scene. Virmani later said he “could hear girls crying inside.”
An hour later, he sent out an urgent email message to League members with the subject line “Red Alert.” He said he hadn’t been arrested, but wondered whether he should get an attorney.
“Please stay away from the hobby in Bellevue right now,” he wrote.
Police closed 12 apartments and told 12 South Korean women they were free to leave. Police and translators explained that brothel owners and some frequent customers had been arrested but that the women would not be charged with a crime. They were offered help and connected to social-service agencies.
“We were really trying to be very victim-centered by essentially saying, ‘This situation is over. We are offering you advocacy or services if you want them. If you don’t want them, you may go,’ ” said Richey, the prosecutor.
But the lack of any certainty about the individual South Korean women’s circumstances opened the prosecution to criticism. Some independent sex workers and advocates of decriminalization said there was no evidence that the women were coerced in any way and no evidence that The Review Board wasn’t simply a community of willing providers and men paying for consensual sex.
Some of the defendants, though they quickly pleaded guilty, argued afterward that they had committed no crime and merely wanted to help the prostitutes.
Two of the defendants swept up in the bust were sex workers who had advanced to brothel operators. One, Jabong Kim, 38, who sometimes advertised herself under the name Crystal, had previously enlisted League members to help her find a new apartment when she was evicted from the Avalon Meydenbauer for running a brothel.
At his sentencing hearing in July 2016, Rhinehart, 48, broke down. His attorney explained that Rhinehart had become infatuated with one of the women and offered to lease her an apartment in his name. His attorney said the married software consultant with two children had not profited from the arrangement and that his life and reputation had been destroyed as a result of the publicity surrounding the arrests.
The man known as “GoGetter” pleaded guilty to two counts of felony promoting prostitution, punishable by up to five years in prison. Because Rhinehart had no criminal history, the prosecutor recommended a first-time offender waiver that would let him serve six months on work release.
The charging documents show that Rhinehart had made more than 400 posts and reviews between June 2012 and his arrest in January 2016.
“I lost sight, and I lost perspective,” he said during his sentencing hearing. “I was deceiving family and colleagues. Betraying community and values I thought I held.”
Another defendant, Vivek Asthana, 41, a software-development director for Amazon, had used his expertise to help construct and maintain the kgirldelights and The League websites. He told detectives after his arrest he never would have gotten so involved if he’d known he could be charged with a felony. He claimed his sole motive was to keep the prostitutes safe.
“Anything we can do to protect them from being taken advantage of or harmed by individuals who go beyond the boundaries they set. But to do that, we also create an information network,” he said.
Asthana, whose handle was “Captain America,” helped detectives reconstruct the websites after other League members dismantled them in the wake of members’ arrests. For his cooperation, prosecutors reduced his two felony charges to two counts of attempted promoting prostitution, a gross misdemeanor. He pleaded guilty and received 60 days of electronic home detention and was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service.
Donald Mueller, the brothel owner and operator, pleaded guilty to two counts of promoting prostitution. His sentencing has been delayed in exchange for his testimony against some of the men who are taking their cases to trial in September.
Zitars said very little at his July 2016 sentencing on three counts of felony promoting prostitution. Although he had never leased an apartment or run a brothel, prosecutors stressed his role in creating the marketplace for prostitution in the Northwest.
“What’s very significant from the state’s perspective was this massive online community that existed on the website created by Mr. Zitars called The Review Board,” Deputy Prosecutor Richey told the judge, adding that the men “actively, repetitively and even compulsively discussed, reviewed and patronized people in prostitution.”
Zitars’ attorney, Zach Wagnild, said going after sex buyers was “the issue du jour” for local prosecutors, who were imposing felonies on men partaking of the world’s oldest profession. He, too, insisted that the purpose of The Review Board was to make the activity “safe for everyone.”
When it was his turn to speak, Zitars emphasized that he made no money, charged nothing for ads, and only occasionally collected money from members to pay for the website costs.
He argued that Craigslist and Backpage.com were overrun with pimps and women being forced to work the streets. “I would not allow them on the board … We had none of that on my website.”
Because he had no criminal history, Zitars was sentenced to 90 days of electronic home detention.
Four days after he was supposed to report to be fitted with the tracking device, Zitars fatally shot himself in the head.
One independent sex worker posted a eulogy for Zitars on her website, writing that she would miss Tahoe Ted and knew she wasn’t alone.
“I didn’t agree with everything that Ted did, and the way the board was run sometimes infuriated me.” But she added, “By its existence, TRB elevated our ‘hobby’ to a new level of safety and transparency … I owe a lot to Ted, and wish I could thank him for that.”
Alisa Bernard, the former prostitute who now works to get services for survivors of prostitution, said she could not think of Zitars as anyone but the person who facilitated the buying and selling of her body by countless men.
“They had turned this into their lives,” she said. “This was his life.”
After The Review Board bust in January 2016, detectives on the case said there was a pause in prostitution activity on the Eastside. The websites that had connected sex buyers with providers were taken over and replaced with the logos of the King County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI. The apartments where the paid sexual encounters took place were leased to new tenants.
“We disrupted an entire manner in which these girls were being exploited,” said Bellevue Detective Tor Kraft.
After the initial 13 arrests, police continued to gather evidence on more than a dozen men central to The League operations and the kgirldelights website. Hundreds more men who had purchased sex from one of the 12 South Korean brothels learned from media reports that their personal information was now in the hands of police.
Many reached out to attorneys, who in turn contacted the prosecutor’s office.
“Some participants recognized that the conduct they were engaged in was problematic,” said Richey, the prosecutor. Some voluntarily enrolled in a Stopping Sexual Exploitation class offered by the Organization for Prostitution Survivors.
Others, he acknowledged, “thought very strongly that they should be allowed to continue doing what they were doing.”
Three of the 30 defendants, including Charles Peters, 47, an alleged leader of The League, are challenging the charges against them in court. Peters’ trial is set for September. His attorneys didn’t return requests for comment.
The other 27 defendants pleaded guilty.
Recognizing that law enforcement can’t arrest all the men involved in prostitution in the area, Seattle Against Slavery, an organization that fights trafficking of both sex and labor workers, developed strategies to deter would-be buyers. The effort included partnering with Google and Bing to identify searches related to prostitution. A message pops up with information about the legal consequences of being caught buying sex and the potential harm to providers.
Executive Director Robert Beiser said that last year 1.3 million people searching for sex online in King County got one of the group’s deterrence ads. Of those people, 19,000 clicked through to learn about the reasons they might want to think twice.
By counting the total number of searches, Beiser said the group calculated that in the Seattle area, someone searches for sex online every nine seconds.
Microsoft and Amazon managers were among those arrested in The Review Board case. Both companies also have employees who have served on the Seattle Against Slavery board of directors.
“Microsoft makes clear to employees that they have a responsibility to act with integrity and conduct themselves in a legal and ethical manner,” a Microsoft spokesman said. “If they don’t, they risk losing their jobs. In this case, we terminated Mr. Virmani’s employment.”
Microsoft workers also have helped Seattle Against Slavery build a prototype platform that would send text messages to prostitutes, offering them services.
The Review Board case drew the interest of law-enforcement agencies around the country. Over the past 18 months, Deputy Prosecutor Richey has been contacted by numerous jurisdictions wanting to know how King County prosecutors and law enforcement worked together to confront the explosion of prostitution activity generated by the online review boards that now exist in every major city.
Kraft, the Bellevue detective, said he supports the direction the county has gone — arresting the sex buyers and trying to get services to the women.
But he said the sheer number of men involved and the amount of money to be made make it impossible for police to shut it all down. That would take more education, he said, to challenge the belief that prostitution is simply a relationship between consenting adults.