A crime gang spent more than £50,000 (€60,000) seeking clients for young prostitutes trafficked illegally into the North, a court heard today.
The gang ran brothels in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast and trafficked people from other countries.
Prostitutes and transsexuals were brought to Belfast and there was a travel budget exceeding £60,000 (€71,000) police told Belfast Magistrates’ Court.
“Hot A-level students 18-plus” in Belfast were among those advertised in a national newspaper.
Two women and two men appeared in court today accused of crimes related to the operation.
A spokesman for detectives in the North said: “One constant has been the fear of the witnesses they feel is put on them by this crime gang.
“The fear that has been instilled in them through this crime group ... this crime group is very capable of using violence against them. That is the control that this crime gang have over them.”
He said £54,000 (€64,500) was spent advertising the vulnerable women for sex.
The operation was discovered by police in Belfast who raided a flat at King’s Square in the east of the city in July and rescued two prostitutes. Detectives have at least two witnesses to the prostitution.
A credit card with a false name had been used to buy 35 flights to Belfast in the last four months for members of the gang.
The four accused were arrested after police raided seven suspected brothels across Belfast on Friday.
One of two alleged victims, a foreign national, claimed to have been sold to those suspected of being in charge. She was sold to the gang in Glasgow and then brought to Belfast, police said.
Another alleged victim was found during searches at premises in Belfast in July.
The court was told thousands of phone calls – made by one of the suspects, Stephen Craig, on a mobile allegedly used to control the business – were studied.
All four were arrested during Operation Apsis, aimed at recovering the victims of sexual exploitation.
Yvonne Dawson, from Tambowie Cottages, Milngavie, Glasgow, is 22 and single. She is charged with controlling prostitution from April to July this year but not trafficking.
Her solicitor Denis Moloney described her as an independent escort who was not a principal player in the business.
She was charged after police observed her inspecting a flat in Belfast to be used as a brothel.
Deputy District Judge Philip Mateer said: “Her participation was of some importance because she was checking out two addresses to be used as a base for further trafficked people.”
Malcolm Wilson Barry McNeill, 46, a coach driver from Forest Avenue, Hamilton, Lanarkshire, signed rent agreements for properties used in the operation as well as running credit card and bank accounts.
The detective said: “McNeill was the public front for this organised crime gang. He had a good credit history with no relevant criminal record of any description. He was used to rent properties and make deposit payments ... to avoid any suspicion.”
McNeill was charged with controlling prostitution, trafficking within the UK, converting criminal property and managing a brothel.
Ashleigh Sara Beuken, 21, of Argyle Street, Glasgow, was accused of the same charges, which she denies, and will be making a bail application.
Stephen Craig, 33, from Albert Road, Clydebank, faces the same charges.
All four were remanded in custody by Deputy District Judge Mateer.
“The nature of the police investigation discloses that they are investigating what is potentially a matter of great, great seriousness,” the judge said.