3 In Las Vegas Face Slavery Charges Involving Chinese Acrobats

Wednesday, July 4th 2007, 5:27 pm
By: News On 6

LAS VEGAS (AP) _ Three men enslaved more than 20 members of a Chinese acrobatic team, feeding them little, paying them next to nothing to perform and confiscating their passports and visas, federal authorities said.

You Zhi Li, 38, Yang Shen, 21, and Jun Hu, 43, were arrested this week on slavery charges and 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.

A woman who worked as an interpreter for China Star Acrobats escaped late last month and contacted authorities, the FBI said. She told police she and 20 other teammates being held against their will in a southwest Las Vegas home.

Social workers interviewed 14 residents at the home Friday, including five juveniles ages 14 to 17, according to a criminal complaint.

``They literally hugged the investigators when they arrived,'' said FBI spokesman David Staretz.

The alleged 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.''

Prosecutors said the acrobats 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 home would be monitored.

One girl who performed as a contortionist told authorities that she was being paid $50 a month, while a boy who said he had been traveling with the troupe for two years said he received $100 per month.

When the acrobats were not performing, they were forced to do chores for another Chinese man, according to the complaint, in which they cleaned or renovated homes and did lawn work.

The acrobats were being provided shelter, food and medical attention, said Terri Miller, director of the Anti-Trafficking League Against Slavery, a task force formed last year in the Las Vegas Valley.