A federal magistrate ordered a St. Thomas resident who is accused of operating a brothel into detention on Wednesday, pending further court action. The defendant, Ramona Rivera Luna, was arrested Saturday at a hotel in downtown Charlotte Amalie.
A detention order filed in the case alleges women came to St. Thomas as undocumented immigrants with a promise of a job and place to stay. Instead, they allegedly had to perform sex work to pay off debts and $200 per week rent. Officers say they were charged $150 for the privilege of leaving the house to go to the store, fees for rooms to perform sex work in and extra fees if they took too long. Owing as much as $8,000 already for their passage and with no way to work legally and no place to stay, the women were effectively trapped into forever paying off their ever-growing debts through sex work, according to the prosecution’s detention order.
The women also reportedly said Luna boasted she could make them disappear and that they fear for their lives and the safety of their families back home if she is released.
Defendant Ramona Rivera Luna was charged with harboring eight women from the Dominican Republic and South America for immoral purposes after agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations Division visited the premises, armed with a search warrant.
On Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Ruth Miller ordered Rivera Luna to be remanded to jail, pending appeal.
Court documents provide details of the search of the Embers Guest House on Oct. 31. Homeland Security Special Agent Andrew Hayden said he and other agents entered the building and found men and women socializing while another woman prepared food in a kitchen. Rivera Luna arrived on the scene a while later and accompanied authorities on a tour of the premises.
In a series of rooms that appeared to be bedrooms, they found females who spoke no English. Hayden said agents also found in those rooms supplies of condoms and lubricants. Behind one door that had to be opened with a key, Hayden said he saw a female in a state of undress who jumped onto a bed as the door opened.
The agent said he heard the accused say to the occupant of the room, “No. Police.” As they made contact with authorities, the women were asked to retrieve their passports.
Most were from the Dominican Republic. The woman behind the locked door produced a Venezuelan passport.
The defendant told the agents she rents the building and had run a business from that location for 15 years, court documents said.
Under Title 8 of the U.S. Code, Section 1328, harboring aliens for the purpose of committing prostitution or other immoral acts, “shall be fined or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.”
Defense attorney Clive Rivers filed a motion opposing the detention order. Rivers said his client had committed no offense that compelled her to be held in jail pending trial.
“In this case, there is a plethora of reasons why Ms. Rivera Luna does not need to be detained. First, the allegations that have been brought against Ms. Rivera Luna do not set forth the types of crimes that would mandate automatic indefinite detention under the [Bail Reform Act],” Rivers said.
Miller has not yet responded to the motion filed by Rivera Luna’s lawyer.