The college students from Kazakhstan came to Florida in 2011 for a sunny summer by the beach. They’d signed up to work at a yoga studio near Miami and got visas through a program with the U.S. Department of State — an opportunity that was supposed to expose them, as foreign students, to the “people, culture, and way of life in the United States.”
They’d be organizing yoga retreats, they were told, scheduling appointments and answering phones.
Instead, authorities say, they were sold for sex.
The students’ alleged boss, Jeffrey Jason Cooper, 46, was indicted by a federal grand jury this week in the Southern District of Florida on charges that include sex trafficking, wire fraud, bringing foreign nationals to the U.S. for prostitution and using a facility to operate a prostitution enterprise, according to a news release from the Department of Justice.
Cooper masqueraded as Dr. Janardana Dasa, the owner and director of Janardana’s Yoga and Wellness S.A., and used the company to recruit several college students from Kazakhstan through the state department’s Summer Work Travel program, according to the indictment.
The program is designed to give foreign college students who are proficient in English and have completed at least one semester of their post-secondary education the opportunity to live and work in the U.S. during their summer vacations. The program web site cautions the international exchange companies with which it contracts against placing students in jobs that are frequently associated with human trafficking, like modeling agencies, housekeeping and janitorial services.
But somehow, Cooper’s imaginary yoga studio fooled the unnamed Chicago-based company that placed the Kazakh students in his care.
The man sent job postings to the company claiming the students would work 48 hours per week and earn $12 per hour, Newsweek reported.
“We are yogic and holistic healing and wellness worldwide organization. We are dedicated to giving people knowledge of the numerous yogic disciplines, healthy eating and holistic lifestyle to promote better health and longer life,” Cooper wrote, according to a criminal complaint obtained by Newsweek.
The indictment claims that on two occasions in May 2011, Cooper told the placement company by phone that the students would be working in a commercial office space performing clerical duties, programming computers and perhaps cleaning lights. They would live, he said, above the yoga studio located in Miami Beach.
But when the students arrived later that month, they were told they’d be performing a different kind of work.
“After foreign nationals arrived in the United States from Kazakhstan, Jeffrey Jason Cooper revealed to the foreign nationals that, in fact, no yoga studio existed, and that the foreign nationals would be expected to perform erotic massages and sex acts in exchange for money,” the indictment alleges.
The students were then taught how to go about their explicit duties by Cooper’s female associates, according to the indictment.
In June, Cooper spoke with the placement company and was asked if the students had been tasked with performing massage work, but he denied those claims.
The students, two young women, were rescued by law enforcement two months later, in August 2011, Newsweek reported.
The criminal complaint filed against Cooper offers more details about the trafficked students and the operations of his alleged prostitution business.
“Beautiful ladies from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, and Ukraine offering Sensual Body rubs,” read a Backpage.com advertisement Cooper posted that was documented in the complaint, Newsweek reported. “Work and travel students, visiting the South Florida area…their ages range from 18-22, completely ‘drama free’ and very happy. Lovely Miami Beach waterfront location, plenty of parking.”
Cooper’s indictment alleges that he tried to traffic in sex at least three other victims that same summer.
If convicted, Cooper faces a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for the sex trafficking and a maximum sentence of 20 years for the wire fraud charges. The other charges could bring additional prison time.
Cooper’s defense attorney Dennis Gonzalez, Jr., told Newsweek: “Our client maintains his innocence.”
Miami’s glamorized culture of sex and drugs has made South Florida attractive to those who make a living trafficking human beings. Federal data ranks Miami among the top three U.S. cities for human trafficking, ABC affiliate Local 10 News reported.
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Florida ranked third among U.S. states where individuals made the most phone calls to the organization to report instances of alleged trafficking.
In 2011, Miami became one of the first cities to host an Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team, an effort launched by the U.S. Attorney General and Secretaries of Labor and Homeland Security and meant to bring law enforcement agencies together and streamline federal criminal investigations into human trafficking offenses.
Since the the ACTeam Initiative was launched in Miami and other cities, like Atlanta, Los Angeles and Memphis, the prosecutions for forced labor, international and adult sex trafficking rose 86 percent in those districts, according to the Justice Department, compared to 14 percent in districts without the initiative in place.
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