Denver District Attorney Beth McCann sees her approach to prosecuting two alleged brothel owners as innovative — but it's actually so old that it's new again. Charging the pair with financial crimes as opposed to human trafficking is a throwback to the 1930s, when infamous Chicago mob boss Al Capone was convicted not for murder or racketeering, but for failing to pay his taxes.
The result is a 21st-century version of The Untouchables, except with tommy guns replaced by more than 100 used condoms, as described in the indictment of Xiaoli Gao, 51, and Zhong Wei Zhang, 49.
The document outlines eight counts against the suspects. Four focus on brothel activities: pimping, conspiracy to commit pimping, keeping a place of prostitution and conspiracy to commit keeping a place of prostitution. But they're also accused of violating the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act, money laundering, conspiracy to commit money laundering and filing a false tax return — the beef to which the main narrative is attached.
Gao is said to have purchased a house on West Ellsworth Avenue (the exact address is redacted) in March 2014. Her unnamed sister and her husband, Zhang, listed the residence as their address, too.
In March 2018, Gao moved out and things began to change. The neighbors told investigators that the new tenants appeared to be "young Asian women" who were visited by a "steady flow of men coming and going...at all hours of the day and staying for very short periods of time."
Hence a call to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and a visit from a Denver police detective, who noticed that the house seemed largely empty of furniture with the exception of a card table near the entryway laden with "a variety of lotions."
A subsequent search of the trash at the house revealed the aforementioned condoms, as well as a paper with Chinese lettering that appeared to be a ledger, plus "KY gel containers and used tissues."
That and other evidence was enough to prompt authorities to install a fixed camera outside the home, and between late March and August, the device reportedly captured images of "men arriving at the house and staying for approximately 25-30 minutes." Moreover, "condom wrappers, used condoms and other evidence consistent with a residential brothel" kept turning up in the garbage.
During this time span, Gao and Zhang are said to have stopped by the Ellsworth home regularly, after which they would head to Wells Fargo Bank locations to make cash deposits into the account for Chinese Massage LLC, a Lakewood business owned by Gao. But the amount of money was allegedly far greater than what Gao claimed on her 2018 tax return.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
There was certainly plenty of the green stuff. A woman who claimed to have worked out of the house told detectives that "she would perform acts of 3-6 customers per day and would charge $200 for an hour and $160 for 30 minutes."
McCann has now lowered the boom on Gao and Zhang using tactics based on dollars and cents. "This is the first time my office has used financial crime to indict alleged traffickers, which has the elegance of sparing the trafficked women from testifying while also charging Gao and Zhang with a class two felony," she noted in a statement released along with the indictment on January 27. "By following the money, we are alleging a case of financial crimes that led from one Denver home, to massage parlors around Denver, to bank accounts in China."
Gao and Zhang are scheduled to appear in court on February 10, and while they're following in Al Capone's footsteps to a certain degree, the trail only leads so far. After all, Capone served his time in Alcatraz.
Click to read the Xiaoli Gao and Zhong Wei Zhang indictment.