A local investigation uncovered an international human trafficking ring that has victimized about 16 Chinese women, McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said.

The office’s Criminal Investigation Division opened a human trafficking investigation in the Waco area last fall. Detectives uncovered an operation that was bringing women in from China and sending them throughout the nation for the purpose of prostitution, McNamara said.

“Detective Joseph Scaramucci has been investigating human trafficking in Waco and Central Texas and it has led to an international trafficking ring that goes from Waco, Houston and to New York with women from China,” McNamara said. “I am so proud of our CID unit and all the hard work that they have put in to fight human trafficking.”

Search warrants served on residences in Houston and Austin led detectives to New York in search of their primary suspect, McNamara said.

In late September, Scaramucci reported he reached out to an online ad promoting an “Asian female escort” on Backpage.com, according to an arrest affidavit. He made contact with a woman in a Waco hotel and found that she had been staying in the room for a lengthy period of time after she flew from Hong Kong to San Francisco, then to Houston.

In late April, Ling Yu, 33, was arrested in New York on a first-degree felony charge of engaging in organized crime and was later indicted by a McLennan County grand jury. Hang Zheng, a Chinese citizen, was also arrested by McLennan County authorities in Austin this week on a first-degree felony charge of engaging in organized crime stemming from the investigation.

Hang is accused of transporting women, none who spoke English, across Texas for prostitution arrangements set up with co-conspirators in New York.

According to the arrest affidavit, Hang, Zhao Chen Shi, 33, and Xubin Zou, 27, committed or conspired to commit continuous human trafficking offenses between late 2016 and early 2017. McNamara said authorities have not arrested Zhao or Xubin, but warrants have been issued for their arrest.

Authorities have seized assets and identified 16 women they think were working for the suspects in Waco; Houston; Austin; Galveston; Victoria; the Brooklyn borough of New York City; the Queens borough of New York City; Indianapolis; Washington, D.C.; Boston; and New Orleans.

Hang and Zhao were “actively transporting Chinese females throughout the state of Texas for the purpose of the females to engage in prostitution,” Scaramucci states in the arrest affidavit.

Additional investigation indicated Xubin and Ling were responsible for placing online ads while they were living in New York, authorities said. Hang and Chen would arrange apartments or hotel rooms for an extended period of time, where the women would meet subjects for sex.

UnBound, a nonprofit group that raises public awareness and provides services to trafficking victims, provided a Chinese translator to assist authorities and work with the 16 victims, officials said.

Houston search warrant

Officers executed a search warrant at Hang’s residence in Houston this week and seized additional evidence, including $20,000 in cash and a Rolex watch valued at $38,000. Total assets collected from the suspects totaled about $115,000.

McNamara said Hang and Ling were arrested and remained in McLennan County Jail on Friday with bond listed at $250,000. All four suspects may also face related federal charges, he said.

“This really has snowballed into a much bigger case than we ever could have figured,” McNamara said. “The investigation continues, and we are not going to let up.”

McNamara said local investigators worked with Department of Homeland Security investigators in Austin, the Houston Police Department, the Austin Police Department and the New York City Queens North VICE unit.

Kristin Hoppa has been covering police, public safety and breaking news for the Tribune-Herald since January 2016. She spent more than six years covering crime-related issues in Northwest Missouri before her move to Central Texas. She is a University of Kansas Jayhawks fan.