SOUTH PORTLAND — In late January, a woman checked into a room at the Knights Inn motel on Main Street. An employee described her as “very nervous and scared.”
She tried to leave, but was reportedly being watched by two unidentified people camped out in a white van in the motel parking lot. They coerced her back into a room, where a series of men came and left.
A neighbor who noticed the unusual activity called police, who suspected sex trafficking after finding a website advertisement for sex services that listed the address of the Knights Inn, one of two Main Street motels later denied lodging licenses by the City Council as a result of concerns about criminal activity at the businesses. An agreement was later reached to allow the motels to continue to operate.
The woman, Yan Liu, originally from China and now a resident of New York City, was charged with engaging in prostitution. No other people were charged in connection with her arrest, including a man and a woman described by the motel employee as coercing Liu back into the room, or a client who admitted to searching for advertised sex acts and paying Liu for intercourse.
Liu, who does not speak English and communicated with police and court officials through an interpreter, posted a $1,000 cash bail and pleaded not guilty to the charge March 22.
But she has been unwilling to speak with her court-appointed attorney, Merritt Heminway, about the circumstances that led her to the hotel room. She did, however, tell him she arrived in the United States last September and has applied for asylum.
Liu’s case, unfortunately, is not unusual.
There are an estimated 200-300 reported cases of human trafficking in Maine each year, and 40 percent of police departments in the state have reported encountering trafficking in the last year, according to data compiled by the Maine Sex Trafficking and Sex Exploitation network.
After a June 27 hearing in Cumberland County Unified Court, Liu and the state filed an agreement that if she remains out of trouble for one year, her case will automatically be dismissed. She was not required to enter a guilty plea and there are no special conditions applied to the agreement, Heminway said.
Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck said the filing allows Liu not to have a permanent record, or result in collateral damage as she goes through the immigration process.
Destie Hohman Sprague, assistant director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said ideally the South Portland Police Department and the Office of the Cumberland County District Attorney would have communicated about the case to make the most-informed decision they could to protect Lui’s safety.
She said arrests have long-term economic and emotional impacts on trafficking victims.
But Liu’s defense attorney criticized the district attorney’s office for prosecuting the case at all, contending Liu is a victim of sex trafficking and is not in control of her situation. He speculated the rational for applying charges was to convince her to identify leaders of a trafficking ring.
In 2015, a similar case initiated by the arrest of a Chinese immigrant at a South Portland motel led to the indictment of three alleged leaders of a New York City-based trafficking operation.
Sahrbeck said prosecuting such cases is sometimes the only mechanism the court system has of keeping tabs on people who are believed to be trafficked.
The prosecutor said nearly all women involved in prostitution have been trafficked at some point in their lives, but with Liu’s reluctance to speak with the state about her situation, the office could not open an investigation into who may be dictating her actions.
“It is up to the defendant to give us that information,” Sahrbeck said, adding he prosecuted the case because it was not clear she was actively being trafficked.
Heminway said according to a police report he reviewed, a clerk at the motel said three men an hour were visiting Liu.
“I believe she is in as much danger as she ever was, but my work is done, there’s nothing I can do,” he said.
Heminway said he was surprised Liu appeared at the June hearing, calling it unusual in a case like this because she was living out of state and because of the charge. Liu told him she came back to Maine on her own, he said, and seemed scared while speaking with him.
“There is a lot more going on behind the scenes,” Heminway said. “I have no indication life is any better for her.”
He said Liu’s cell phone records revealed her brief stint in South Portland, as well as time spent in St. Louis, Missouri, and in the New York City borough of Queens. He said this activity is consistent with what authorities recognize as sex trafficking.
Liu first told police she had taken the wrong bus and ended up in Maine, but could not tell them where she meant to go. She denied any involvement in prostitution.
Lt. Frank Clark said the South Portland Police Department refers women like Liu to advocacy organizations such as Through These Doors, or Preble Street, as they did with Liu. According to a report by Officer Erin Curry, the department contacted an advocate and Liu said she was comfortable speaking with the advocate. Curry drove her to the meeting.
The website used to promote Liu, called Backpage, has been used to advertise sex acts for payment under the guise of promoting escort services. It was shut down in April.
Clark said that hasn’t stopped the trade, but has hindered the one-stop shop nature of the platform. He said the good news is, if police are experiencing difficulty in finding advertisements, then clients will have problems, too.
Although several other, unidentified people are listed as having involvement in the case, either as gatekeepers of Liu or as clients, Liu, the victim, was the only one charged.
When asked why her alleged client was not arrested after admitting to having intercourse with Liu and paying her, Clark said officers were abiding by a legal rule that stipulates a person cannot be charged by only their own admission to a crime without any other physical evidence to corroborate their claim.
If Liu had admitted to having sex with the man for money, then he could have been arrested, Clark explained.
The man was pulled over by police after being seen leaving the motel. He said he searched backpage.com, responded to the ad, and paid $130 for sex. His candor extended to telling police he preferred Asian women and he had been to the motel before to meet with women for sex.
Liu, meanwhile returned to New York after her Portland court appearance in June. Heminway, her attorney, said it is unlikely he will ever see her again.
The Knights Inn on Main Street in South Portland. (Portland Press Herald)