Federal judge sentences couple to time served for role in sex trafficking

Jan. 12—A husband and wife will both be released from jail after serving more than three years for their roles in a sex trafficking operation that coerced two dozen Chinese women into prostitution in Maine.

A federal judge sentenced Derong Miao and Shou Chao Li in separate hearings Tuesday at the U.S. District Court of Maine in Portland. Both pleaded guilty last year to one count of conspiracy to engage in interstate transportation and travel for prostitution, as well as four counts of interstate transportation for prostitution. In doing so, they admitted to transporting at least four different women between New Hampshire and Maine for prostitution.

"The whole thing was extensive and offensive and exploited the victims who had language barriers, who needed money," U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby said before he sentenced Miao. "It can't be overemphasized how reprehensible this conspiracy and the incidents were."

U.S. Attorney Darcie McElwee outlined the broader conspiracy and their part in it during the hearings Tuesday. She said Miao and Li actually were involved in the effort to bring at least 24 women to Maine. They rented two homes and multiple hotel rooms in the Portland area that were used for commercial sex in 2016, and they moved women between those locations to avoid detection. They collected money, shared it with others in the operation and sent payments to conspirators for online ads.

McElwee said the broader investigation into the upper ranks of the conspiracy is ongoing, but one person was arrested Tuesday in Texas. She also would not say what happened to the women once Miao and Li were arrested.

Court documents show the women mostly came to the United States on visas that did not legally allow them to work, and they thought they would be able to find other jobs but were unable to repay debts associated with their travel. They spoke little or no English and had no other contacts in Maine or neighboring states. None attended the sentencing or requested restitution from Miao or Li.

McElwee noted that Tuesday was Human Trafficking Awareness Day, and these two cases are the most complex of her career.

"The fact that these sentencings fell on this day is important, given how critical it is to bring awareness to this specific crime and how destructive it can be," McElwee said.

Miao and Li have been in federal custody since December 2018. When they pleaded guilty, they both agreed not to appeal a sentence less than a certain amount of time: four years and seven months for Miao, four years and three months for Li. The conspiracy charge carried a possible penalty of five years in prison; the interstate transportation charges, up to 10 years each.

Hornby sentenced both defendants to time served, although he added two weeks to Miao's sentence to give her time to make housing arrangements with a friend in Massachusetts. In both cases, the prosecutor and the defense attorney requested that penalty. Both Miao and Li will be on supervised release for five years, and the judge also ordered that Miao have her electronic devices monitored because she used them to communicate with the women on a social media platform called WeChat.

The judge said the sentences recognized both the seriousness of the crimes and the heightened stress of incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I also take into account the nature of his incarceration during this time of COVID, and how difficult that is in jail with the restrictions that COVID has imposed and with the language barrier," Hornby said of Li. "It is a really difficult, hard time, without the programs that might otherwise be available."

Court documents have revealed little information about the lives of Li and Miao, but their lawyers shared more details Tuesday during the sentencing.

Defense attorney Jeffrey Langholtz, who represented Miao, described her difficult life. He said Miao was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a child, and her family endured religious persecution in China. She has a son in China, and when she came to the United States to seek a better life and medical care for him, she too was coerced into prostitution. He said she has been working to learn English at the Cumberland County Jail, and he submitted several letters from employees and incarcerated people who praised her work ethic and character.

"This was never about money," Langholtz said. "This was about trying to have a peaceful, better life for her child."

Miao expressed her remorse in a lengthy address to the court. She read the judge a letter from her son, who begged her to bring him to America and wrote about how he wanted to have a mother like other children he knew. She cried as she held the paper in shaking hands.

"At the time, I was only thinking about how to survive, how to preserve my life," Miao told the judge through an interpreter. "At the time, my son was also waiting for me and was depending on me."

Langholtz said Miao is no longer welcome with her husband or his family, but she will live with a friend in Massachusetts and hopes to be reunited eventually with her son.

Defense attorney Mingli Chen, who represented Li, said the man owned a restaurant in New Hampshire when he met Miao in 2016. Both the prosecution and the defense described Miao as the more culpable of the couple and the one who directed their part of the trafficking operation. Chen said Li did as she asked because he did not want her to leave him.

"I know that he feels very regretful for what he did," Chen said. "His being naive is no excuse for his wrong."

Li also addressed the court briefly through an interpreter. He kept his head down and spoke in a barely audible voice.

"Because of my wrongdoings, I must say that I have let this society and my parents down," he said.

Chen said Li will return to New Hampshire to live with his family, and his parents will rely on him to care for them in their old age.