HOUSTON (CN) – A Cuban-American bail bondsman who calls himself the best bounty hunter in Houston is on the other side of the law, appearing in court Monday to face federal charges that he and his girlfriend ran a sex-trafficking ring that forced four Colombian women into prostitution and debt bondage.
Luis De Jesus Rodriguez, 26, aka Htown Hunter, has a gift for self-promotion and a knack for tracking down bail jumpers. He became a bounty hunter at age 18 and had a crew working for him within four years, with whom he has captured more than 1,000 fugitives, he said in a March 2013 interview posted on YouTube.
"I have about 10 guys who work under my belt. They got with me because I was taking them out of business. So they said, 'Hey this young guy's taking over. He's taking us out of business. Let's just join him.' And I've been very successful with these guys," he said in the interview.
Rodriguez also said that his biggest payday came when he caught a man charged with aggravated robbery who had skipped on a $1 million bond.
"I collected 15 percent on it," Rodriguez said.
He appeared Monday alongside his girlfriend, Helen Leon Mesa, 28, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dena Palermo. They were arrested Friday after a federal grand jury indicted them the day before on four sex-trafficking charges that each carry a potential punishment of 15 years to life in prison.
They also face two visa fraud charges for which the maximum punishment is 10 years in federal prison.
Chubby and baby-faced with a closely-cropped beard, Rodriguez seemed calm and composed Monday, fixing an intense gaze on people sitting in the gallery as he was led in handcuffs before Palermo's bench to hear the charges against him. He wore a long-sleeved shirt, gray sweats and bright green athletic shoes.
Standing to his left in a baggy gray sweatshirt, Leon stared straight ahead with her jaw set at Judge Palmero. Leon's long eyelashes and the cords to her earphones through which an interpreter was translating the proceedings to Spanish stood out in silhouette against a window looking out at the clear blue sky of a crisp Houston morning.
Prosecutors left part of the indictment sealed, redacting the name of a third defendant, described in court papers as a Colombian national who recruited women from that country and helped them obtain tourist visas from the U.S. embassy in Bogota, instructing the women to lie about their employment and why they were traveling to the United States.
Prosecutors say that Rodriguez, Leon and their accomplices promised the four women they would earn lots of money in the United States. The women were shown videos of Rodriguez as a bounty hunter, and given the impression he's a police officer, prosecutors allege.
"Once the victims arrived in Houston, Texas, they discovered that they had been brought to the United States under false pretenses. The victims were coerced into signing debt bondage contracts in which they owed a significant debt to defendant Rodriguez—ranging from $13,500 USD to $25,000 USD, with a daily payment ranging from $200 USD to $250 USD," the indictment states.
Leon allegedly found the women work at a Houston strip club and she and Rodriguez forced them into prostitution so they could pay their daily $250 debt.
Prosecutors say Rodriguez and Leon lived with the women and gave them cellphones to track them.
To keep the women in debt bondage, the indictment says, Rodriguez and Leon fined them if they "engaged in romantic relationships, 'outings away from the establishment'" without their permission, and for taking days off work.
Rodriguez is represented by Houston attorney Chris Downey.
Downey told reporters after Monday’s hearing that he doesn't know the name of the strip club where prosecutors say the women worked, and at this point he knows little about the case beyond what's in the indictment.
Downey defended Rodriguez against state robbery charges in 2012 after a tipster falsely identified Rodriguez as one of four suspects who robbed a gambling hall in December 2011 while wearing police tactical gear.
State prosecutors dismissed Rodriguez's charges after video surveillance footage exonerated him, and the charges were expunged from his record.
"I don't know a whole lot about his reputation other than he was a pretty colorful character as a bounty hunter... My main goal now is to get some people up there to talk about what kind of person he is," Downey said Monday morning at the Houston federal courthouse.
Backed by a catchy hip-hop beat, a YouTube video posted in March 2013 shows Rodriguez wearing a black tactical vest, a badge hanging around his neck that's akin to a sheriff's badge from an old Western movie, and black gloves, knocking on doors at an apartment complex, serving papers and handcuffing a young Hispanic man.
His humanitarian streak and big personality are on display in a June 2013 video in which he is shown in his office, stacking dozens of backpacks into boxes.
"Three hundred backpacks with school supplies in them," Rodriguez says in the clip. "We're going to give them away to kids who don't have parents who can afford backpacks. It's a beautiful thing to see these kids' moms. At the end of the day it's all about the kids. And this is like bread out of my pocket. I love my job. I don't just catch bad guys, as ya'll see. So Htown Hunter, I'll keep ya'll posted and ya'll better check me out because I run this city.”
Leon has yet to hire an attorney. Palermo set her counsel-determination hearing for Wednesday at 10 a.m. She scheduled Leon and Rodriguez's detention hearing for Friday at 2 p.m., when Palmero will decide if they are eligible to be released on bond.
Rodriguez said in the March 2013 YouTube interview that he became addicted to the rush of going after bad guys as a bounty hunter, and that he's known for his no-nonsense approach to the job.
"They say I'm an asshole. I don't give people breaks. I believe when you break the law you have to face the consequences. When the law enforcement can't hunt you down and they can't find you and they send the bounty hunters after you, it's kind of like it's a last resort. It's like we're coming for you. And you know, you have to be cold blooded like that," he said in the interview.
If convicted, Rodriguez and Leon could also be fined more than $500,000.
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