While some were easing back into work after the holidays, five days into 2016, Val Richey was sitting with police detectives in an unmarked car in a Burger King parking lot. Across the street from the detectives and the senior deputy prosecutor, a group of men who called themselves, “The League,” was meeting.
“We were listening in on the whole thing, and the wires were crackling and not really clear as officers were entering the restaurant. And then you could hear the whole place go completely quiet as the group of officers approached the table and started to arrest the men. It was a satisfying moment,” Val said, recalling the raid at the Pumphouse Bar and Grill in Bellevue.
The arrests were six months in the making. “The League” often met to discuss brothels and the prostituted people they frequented. The men shared ideas on how to lie to their wives and girlfriends. And they talked about how to evade law enforcement as they built the infrastructure and managed two online commercial sex sites. One site, “The Review Board,” had an estimated 18,000 members across the country who regularly rated women and posted details about them to facilitate prostitution.
Bellevue Police, the King County Sheriff’s Department, the FBI, and the King County Prosecutor’s office, including Val and Gary Ernsdorff, another senior deputy prosecuting attorney, worked together on the case, with the help of an undercover detective who infiltrated “The League” to gain evidence. By Jan. 5, they were ready to go.
Through 126 search warrants and court orders, law enforcement took control of "The Review Board" website; arrested 14 individuals; closed down a dozen brothels; and also seized vehicles, firearms, and electronic evidence for the case.
“It was definitely one of the most innovative, far-reaching operations of its kind with broad implications for other jurisdictions over what can be done to combat sexual exploitation.”
Val has significantly more than a six-month history in the fight against sexual exploitation. It’s been his focus for his almost seven years in the Special Assault Unit of the King County Prosecutor’s office.
In his first year of law school at the University of Washington, Val weighed a summer position with the office of the public defender against a position with the prosecutor. The people in the prosecutor’s office resonated with him, so he spent the summer in the SAU of the prosecutor’s office.
“I came to understand the tremendous value a prosecutor can play in helping the exploited, the vulnerable, and the most disenfranchised people in our society,” Val said. He joined the prosecutor’s office after law school and did the usual rotations through the drug unit, the juvenile division, the trials team, but his interest remained with the SAU. Val only worried about the emotional toll the work might exact on him and his family.
“My wife and I were driving one day and listening to this great NPR story about a detective who was doing all this work on sex trafficking cases. She traveled to Eastern Europe to find out where the women were from and what was really happening,” Val remembered. “My wife was the one who turned to me and said, ‘You should do that. You should do that kind of work.’”
That moment in the car with his wife eventually led to the moment when Val sat in an unmarked vehicle, listening to "The League" takedown he helped to achieve.
Following the arrests, Val and Gary needed to manage a flood of interest from across the country. They had to handle filing documents, the press, as well as opponents, angry over the shutdown. There were endless hours of work with little time for sleep.
Two evenings later, Val stepped off the bus after work and scanned the commuter parking lot for his car. It wasn’t there. Then Val remembered…he drove to work that morning. His car was still in a parking garage near the Seattle courthouse. For Val Richey, life moments seem to somehow involve cars.