FORT MYERS — A ledger with women's names. Receipts for money wired to Central America. Fake IDs with real information: Antonio Mendez-Lopez, 45 years old, Guatemala native.
Immigration officials found these items in the efficiency apartment of a Golden Gate man last week when they arrested him in a sting of a multistate sex trafficking ring, a federal investigator testified Wednesday morning in a Fort Myers U.S. District courtroom.
A magistrate determined at the hearing that Mendez-Lopez, who is in the U.S. illegally, would remain in custody pending extradition to Georgia.
He faces 15 years in prison on sex trafficking-related charges, while other ring members could get life in prison.
After a two-year investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies from Naples to North Carolina, investigators dismantled the ring, which made money by prostituting undocumented women out to dozens of johns a day.
Operation Dark Night netted 13 people accused of running a sex trafficking ring, 44 johns on immigration offenses, and 11 victims rescued from the alleged traffickers.
With two surveillance photos, a warrant, and an address gleaned from a phone tap, special agents headed to a salmon-colored home in Golden Gate the morning of Jan. 16.
They waited, and Mendez-Lopez eventually came walking down the street, Gonzalez told Magistrate Judge Sheri Polster Chappell.
"We made contact and detained him. He was the guy from the photos," Gonzalez testified, adding that Mendez-Lopez confirmed who he was to law enforcement and was forthcoming.
A Guatemalan passport in his pants pocket corroborated his identity for agents, and he told investigators he came to the U.S. without immigration papers nearly 12 years ago, the special agent added.
The defendant then gave them permission to search his efficiency apartment, which is attached to a single-family home off Sunshine Boulevard.
That's where investigators found "a ledger book that had different names — girls' names, and dates," fake IDs including a Social Security card, and evidence of money wired to Guatemala in $500 and $1,000 installments, Gonzalez said.
At least one of the names in the notebook was of a woman known to investigators as both a victim and alleged co-conspirator in the prostitution ring, and whom Mendez-Lopez is accused of transporting for the purposes of prostitution.
Mendez-Lopez will have another preliminary hearing in Fort Myers on Jan. 28 to determine probable cause for moving forward with the case and extraditing him to Georgia, where investigators allege the prostitution ring was based.