LAS VEGAS – Three men were being held in Las Vegas on slavery charges, accused of detaining members of a Chinese acrobat team against their will.
The arrests of You Zhi Li, 38, Yang Shen, 21, and Jun Hu, 43, this week came after one woman who worked as an interpreter for China Star Acrobats escaped late last month and contacted authorities, the FBI said.
The woman told police she and 20 other teammates were, in effect, slaves being held against their will in a southwest Las Vegas home.
Other members of the troupe then told authorities that they were fed little, paid next to nothing, and their lives were completely controlled by three Chinese men.
Li, Shen and Hu made an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas on Tuesday. They were ordered held in custody, and a preliminary hearing was scheduled for July 13.
"This company has been using these children and young adults for its own benefit," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Bork.
Representatives of Child Protective Services and the Clark County Department of Family Services on Friday conducted a health and welfare check at the home, where they interviewed 14 residents, including five juveniles ages 14 to 17, according to a criminal complaint.
Victims said Li promised them $300 to $1,600 a month to perform with the China Star Acrobats, a team that traveled and performed at schools across the country.
"It's a cultural program," said Anthony Wright, Li's court-appointed defense attorney. "Chinese folks get to come over here and learn about America."
But the acrobats, prosecutors said, were forced to stay in Li's home, where up to six lived in each bedroom. Most had been brought to Las Vegas months ago.
They told authorities that they were fed minimal amounts of instant noodles, rice and vegetables twice a day. They said they sometimes had to perform twice a day, were awakened early and didn't get to go to sleep until very late.
According to the complaint, Li confiscated visas and passports and told them their phone calls to home would be monitored. One teen told authorities he feared for the safety of his family in China, and that he had witnessed Hu beat another performer during a personal dispute, according to the complaint.
One girl who performed as a contortionist told authorities that she was being paid $50 a month, but was instructed to tell detectives she earned $1,600 a month. A boy said he had been traveling with the troupe for two years, receiving $100 per month instead of the $400 per month he was promised.
"Li stated that he made agreements with the managers of the performers in China, whereas, he would send the managers $800 a month for each performer," the complaint said. "Li stated he does not pay the performers a salary but gives them between $50 and $100 per month to live on."
When the acrobats were not performing, they were forced to do chores for another Chinese man, who was identified as "Benny." The acrobats cleaned or renovated homes and did lawn work, the complaint says.
Bork said Li owns a $320,000 home, has paid off a $170,000 home and has $110,000 in his business' bank account. In addition, Li has $30,000 in his personal bank account and owns four vans worth approximately $25,000 apiece.
FBI spokesman David Staretz said the acrobats were overjoyed at being liberated. "They literally hugged the investigators when they arrived," he said.
The acrobats were being provided shelter, food and medical attention, said Terri Miller, director of the Anti-Trafficking League Against Slavery, known as the ATLAS task force.
The task force, formed last year to combat human trafficking in the Las Vegas Valley, includes the FBI, federal immigration officials, the Salvation Army, Safe House, the Rape Crisis Center, the Boyd Law School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and other organizations.