BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — PEABODY — A New York woman who at one point was running at least 20 brothels out of apartments all over Massachusetts, including one in Peabody where two women were arrested and later jailed in 2005, was sentenced this week to five years in prison.
But before her sentencing Tuesday, Hong Wei, known as “Mrs. Chen” to the young Chinese women she lured into prostitution, invoked the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in a plea for mercy.
“Lately, like most Americans, I was saddened by the shocking tragedy in Newtown, Conn.,” she wrote in a letter to U.S. District Court Judge George O’Toole. “The event reinforced my awareness that money is not everything. Family safety, unity and peace are the real fortune of life.”
Prosecutors say Wei, 41, ran a prostitution ring from at least 2004 until 2010, when she and her co-defendants were arrested following an investigation.
As part of a plea agreement, Wei admitted to charges of conspiracy, inducing prostitution, aiding and abetting forced labor, and harboring aliens. A human trafficking charge was dropped. Prosecutors had sought a sentence of more than seven years.
After completing her prison term, Wei faces deportation.
Wei, who, according to her lawyer, arrived in the United States in 1997, advertised jobs for women in Chinese-language newspapers, telling them that they would either provide “massage” or “nanny” services.
The women would be moved around three times a month so that they did not know exactly where they were at any given time. Associates would be sent to collect cash from the women.
When arrested, Wei had some $92,000 in a bank account. But her attorney, in a sentencing memorandum, said that much of the money Wei made as a madam went to pay for the education of her son, to assist a brother with financial problems and to fuel a gambling addiction.
Federal prosecutors cited the 2005 case in Peabody as an example of the forced labor Wei imposed on vulnerable women.
One of the women arrested believed that she would be working as a housekeeper and was horrified to discover she would be working in a brothel, prosecutors said. Wei allegedly responded by calling her stupid and intimidating her.
The second woman arrested, a younger woman who had no other place to live, was told she would be allowed to stay in the Essex Lane apartment for $25 a day, then told that she could pay the rent by prostituting herself. That woman wanted to leave, as well, but was intimidated into staying, prosecutors said.
During their trial in Peabody District Court, both women were so fearful of “Mrs. Chen” that they refused to say anything in their own defense or even accept a plea agreement that would have required them to admit to the charges, according to a Salem News account of the trial. They were sentenced to six months in jail each. Two men who had arrived in a car bearing New York plates sat in the rear of the courtroom throughout the trial.
Through coverage in The Salem News, the case came to the attention of the State Department, which was investigating human trafficking. The two women later were identified as witnesses against Wei after Wei’s indictment in 2010.
Prosecutors say many other women were picked up at South Station and taken to apartments around the state to work as prostitutes, all under the direction of Wei.
But in her letter to Judge O’Toole, Wei focused not on those women but on herself and her family.
Saying she was not born rich, “I was motivated to earn more money to try to provide security to my family and thus went beyond legal boundaries,” she wrote.
She gave birth to a child while awaiting trial, her mother suffered two heart attacks and phone calls to her 19-year-old son “brought me unspeakable sorrow,” she wrote.
The only reference to the women she had put to work as prostitutes came in a sentencing memorandum, in which her attorney suggested that the women knew what they were getting themselves into when they responded to the ads.
Three of Wei’s associates have also pleaded guilty in the case, and a fourth is awaiting trial.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.