EXCLUSIVE: Suspected 'brothel kingpins running massage parlours - one near Buckingham Palace' named
A WOMAN and her former partner can today be named as key suspects in a major police investigation into an alleged organised crime group said to be running brothels from plush properties across London, including one near Buckingham Palace and others in Airbnb properties.
In a landmark court case, Jie Zhang, 39, and her partner at the time Qitao Xu, 30, have been placed under slavery and trafficking risk orders (STRO) despite not being convicted of any offences. A third woman, Italian Giulia Manzo, 30, said to have been responsible for getting European prostitutes, has also been placed under an STRO after the Met Police applied for them to restrict their activities while it continues to investigate the suspected brothel ring.
The group is said to have exploited trafficked women from China and Romania, taking up to 60 percent of their earnings.
Westminster Magistrates' Court heard the group was running brothels from at least 14 flats in plush parts of London, Airbnb lets, and a visiting escort service.
PORTFOLIO: The group has three flats in Sheldon Square, near Piccadilly station (Google)
The three can be named after Judge Samuel Goozee lifted reporting restrictions preventing their identification, following representations from Essex News and Investigations and other media.
The court heard the Met launched a probe after women allegedly trafficked into prostitution by the group left pleas for help written on postcards left in a communal letter box area of a flat in Buckingham Palace Road just a few hundred metres from the Queen's palace.
The note, found by a resident said: "Help save me, I am from China.
"Flat is a black brothel they cheat me from China, to work as sex slave in England.
"They take me from Paddington to work in there. The gang's name is Cloud9.
"The gang controls many girls in London... please help me to call police."
It was reported to police who located three Chinese women there that evening.
STROs are designed to prevent people who are suspected of trafficking vulnerable individuals from being able to do it.
MASSAGE: Provocative images from the Cloud9 website (Cloud9)
A Met Police spokesman said: "The orders have a number of prohibitions including restrictions around movement and travel, arranging travel, devices that they owned, bank accounts and the type of work they can and cannot be involved in."
The three were arrested in April along with four other suspects following a series of raids.
Seven addresses, including four massage parlours suspected of operating as brothels, were raided across London, while a Gloucestershire hotel was also searched.
A number of allegedly trafficked women, mainly from China and southeast Asia, with some Romanians, were also identified.
But, the Met Police has been unable to charge anyone six months on.
FEES: A price list found on the Cloud9 website (Cloud9)
The Met applied for five STROs in connection with the case, but Judge Goozee declined to grant two of them against a Chinese woman, 68, and another Chinese woman, 31, who was a former sex worker who allegedly climbed the ladder. He wrote in his judgement: "The applicant’s (police) case is that all the respondents are involved in the operation of an organized crime gang known as “Cloud 9” or “London Nude Massage” which is believed to be responsible for the trafficking and prostitution of a substantial number of primarily Chinese and Romanian females working out of numerous brothels across London.
"The respondents are currently subject of an ongoing criminal investigation into offences committed under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002."
Jie Zhang is known by a number of names including “Jenny”, “Lora”, “Sister Yun” and “Susan Best.”
Judge Goozee added: "The applicant’s case is that Jie Zhang is the principal member who resided with and managed the affairs of the group alongside her partner at the time Qitao Xu.
"It is said they were assisted in their management of the enterprise, in particular the recruitment of new sex workers, arrangements for transportation and management of the European prostitutes, by Giulia Manzo, who is lower in the chain of command."
The court heard the group used a large number of rented residential premises in London, mainly across Westminster, as brothels and also regularly rented premises for use on a short-term basis via Airbnb. It also provided visiting escorts and racked up an around £100,000 bill on ferrying girls to clients via Addisson Lee vehicles, it heard.
Mr Goozee added: "The vast majority of the group’s profit was generated in cash by the women providing sexual services to clients.
"The revenue stream was tightly controlled; a price would be arranged beforehand based on a fixed list of services which the worker was bound to perform.
"They would collect cash before providing their service and would owe 50 to 60 percent to the group.
"The cut would be collected by more senior workers residing in the local brothels.
"The funds collected were then passed to the principal members of the group."
The cash was laundered through a front limited company that had no legitimate purpose and by the purchase of high value items on behalf of third parties in China, police told the court.
MIND-BLOWING: Reviews from Cloud9 users on its website (Cloud)
Mr Goozee said: "The goods were transferred abroad before being sold. The funds were then returned to the group by way of a formal transfer or less formal value transfer systems.
"Once funds were cleaned they were used to fund a luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the first, second and third respondents."
Funds in Zhang's accounts were frozen by Account Freezing Orders granted at earlier hearings at Westminster Magistrates’ Court.
Police found receipts for high-value purchases at Harrods and Louis Vuitton, the court heard.
DC Peter Eddy, who is leading the investigation, said cash was also laundered out of the country. He said: "They retain money by financing their lifestyles and there are various facets to move money out of the UK. "Items of high value were purchased in the UK and sent to other countries like China." Mr Goozee added: "Statements from officers undertaking safeguarding visits attending various addresses set out above found Chinese or Romanian females at the property who spoke little English.
"Property was often sparely furnished and the Chinese girls denied being sex workers but were often unable to provide convincing explanations for being in the UK or who they knew each other.
"Officers describe bottles of lubricants, condoms and on occasions bundles of cash.
"Evidence from Mark Wilson, Security and Revenue Protection Manager at Addison Lee, evidences bookings made from mobile numbers and emails associated with Jie Zhang.
"I find these bookings were made to transport females to different addresses in order to provide outcall sexual services.
"I find the group also rented premises on a short-term basis via Airbnb.
"Evidence from Airbnb records complaints that the one property was used for escorts.
"The evidence in this case includes evidence that girls from China and Romania have been trafficked and sexually exploited by way of causing, inciting and controlling prostitution for gain.
"There is evidence of controlling the money they make and the collection of payments. All bookings are controlled.
"Evidence that the girls spoke little English and were dependent on the group for accommodation. Evidence that travel for the girls to different premises and outcalls to clients was controlled and messages left in communal areas that premises were operated by the group and contacting the police would be fruitless."
DC Eddy told the court the five suspects had no bail conditions restricting their movements imposed after arrest in April due to a CPS blunder while they were in police custody.
He said with the arrests made during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic it was taking longer to deal with each person in custody and to sort out bail conditions, but the CPS had only left his team with an hour to try to process all five.
He said: "Unfortunately the information that they were not going to be charged in custody did not come to me until the last hour.
"It was more demanding in a Covid situation and we did not have time to impose any bail conditions before we had to release them."
He said charges were unlikely to follow for at least a month because the force still has "millions of rows of data" from seized digital devices to comb through.
The suspects deny the allegations against them.
Barnaby Hone, representing Zhang, said the application had only been made by the force because it had been unable to secure bail conditions. He argued that the force had only identified one victim who alleged to have been trafficked and that many people shared the same names as the suspects which originated from China. Judge Goozee wrote: "Submissions are made by the respondents that these applications are bail conditions being secured by the Metropolitan Police through the back door to mitigate the consequences of the respondents being released under investigation rather than on pre-charge conditional bail."
But, he added: "In view of the sophisticated nature of the organization headed by Jie Zhang, such risk of harm will continue in the future. "I am satisfied that having considered the background and all the circumstances of the case that orders in respect of Jie Zhang, Qitao Xu and Giulia Manzo are necessary and proportionate to protect persons not only in this jurisdiction or aboard from such harm. I consider it proportionate to make the orders for two years."
Dismissing orders against the woman 68, who he said had a peripheral role, and the 31-year-old, he wrote: "The last respondent, (name removed) was a sex worker herself, but who the applicant states took a leadership role and became responsible for the collection of monies generated by the other women working for the group along with the enforcement of the rules set by her managers."
He felt it was not proportionate to serve either with an order.
The three given orders cannot leave the country, but Manzo can travel to Italy if she gives 14 days notice.
A Met Police spokesman said: "The Met has secured its first slavery and trafficking risk orders in relation to an investigation into the sexual exploitation of women at brothels in Westminster. "The landmark orders were secured by detectives from the Met’s Modern Slavery and Child Exploitation team at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Friday, November 6.
"The orders are part of an investigation called Operation Huai, which is targeting an organised crime group believed to be trafficking and sexually exploiting women in brothels across London.
"The suspects remain released under investigation pending further enquiries."
A CPS spokesman said: “Bail conditions are ultimately a matter for police. “In this complex case we concluded the material passed to us by the police did not meet our threshold test for charge and a remand in custody. “We continue to assist the police as they continue with their investigation.”