A husband and wife from New Hampshire who are charged with running an interstate and international sex trafficking ring in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont were ordered held without bail by a federal judge on Tuesday.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John H. Rich III issued the detention order after a lengthy hearing in which an FBI agent provided testimony linking the couple to the sex trafficking operation as proof of their involvement in the alleged scheme that involved homes and hotels in Portland, South Portland and Kittery.

Details revealed in court also give new insight into the scale of the alleged operation, which included a massage parlor in Rochester, New Hampshire, that offered both legitimate services and sex for money.

Sou Chao Li and Derong Maio, both 37, were arrested and charged in December, and three properties in New Hampshire they owned or rented were searched by federal agents.

Each faces one count of conspiracy to engage in interstate transportation and travel for prostitution; two counts of sex trafficking by fraud and coercion; and five counts of interstate transportation for prostitution. Li also is charged with possessing a victim’s passport as part of the sex trafficking scheme.

FBI Special Agent Christopher Peavey, under questioning by Assistant United States Attorney Darcie N. McElwee, testified that the federal investigation into the sex trafficking ring began in 2016 and culminated in December when agents arrested the couple in New Hampshire and discovered they also ran a massage parlor in Rochester, Lucky Massage.

Peavey’s testimony also raised the prospect that Maio herself was engaged in prostitution, after agents saw a message inquiring about whether Lilly, one of Maio’s aliases, was available that day.

McElwee praised the judge’s decision and said the couple posed a danger, especially to the Chinese women who previously worked for them.

Although Li and Maio did not use drugs or physical force to coerce the women, the couple’s tactics of isolating and controlling the alleged victims posed too great a risk of witness tampering if they were released on bail, in addition to posing a flight risk, the judge ruled.

Li’s attorney, Mingli Chen, of Flushing, New York, said he believes the state’s case is not strong enough to convict his client, and he had serious reservations about the basis for some of the questioning at the hearing, where a lower standard of evidence is applied than in a full trial. Although Li was at first represented by a court-appointed attorney, Chen entered his appearance on behalf of Li in December. Chen declined to say who hired him.

“From looking at the documents, from looking at the evidence, the government’s case is not strong,” Chen said after the hearing.

Prosecutors allege Li and Maio caused two dozen Chinese nationals to travel to Maine on tourist visas and then coerced them to engage in prostitution here and in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Nine relatives of the couple sat in the gallery to show their support for the couple, who were brought into the courtroom in handcuffs and leg irons, and sat quietly at the defense table next to their respective attorneys.

Most of the women came to the United States on tourist visas that didn’t allow them to work while here, according to the indictment. They spoke little or no English and had no other contacts in Maine or neighboring states. Some worked at jobs other than prostitution when they first arrived “but were unable to earn a wage substantial enough to repay debts associated with their travel to the United States.”

Investigators connected the massage parlor to Li because an email address on a utility bill for the massage business matched an email address Li included on a rental application made to Avesta Housing in Portland. They also found a checkbook for the massage business that was associated with Maio.

Peavey also said Li lied to investigators when he was interviewed, at first saying he’d only been to Maine once to visit a casino, when in fact he had been renting properties in Maine since at least 2016, and had been photographed by FBI surveillance teams at one Portland hotel, the former Travelodge on Brighton Avenue, which was among the hotels named in the indictment where the alleged prostitution took place.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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Twitter: MattByrnePPH

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