Little Village house becomes home to brothel

Unsuspecting neighbors never realized woman ran sex trafficking ring, using threats and fear to control prostitutes

Rubicela Montero (Chicago Police Department / February 14, 2013)
By Gregory Pratt, Special to the TribuneFebruary 14, 2013

Before the house on South Millard Avenue became a place where men in their work uniforms came to fulfill their "VIP fantasies," it was a simple family home on a block with relatively little crime.

The small two-story residence — owned by the same family since 1991 — is next to an alley and across the street from Los Globos dance hall.

Jessica Saldana, who lives on the block with her husband and two pit bulls, said it's a quiet community, and city statistics show that the 3100 block of South Millard Avenue is in one of the safer police beats in Chicago.

By the time Rubicela Montero, a 38-year-old mother, moved into the home three years ago, renting the basement for $650 a month, she was an experienced madam who had set up several other brothels in the Little Village neighborhood, according to police.

Montero left one location after the owner sold the house and another after a financial dispute with the landlord. She fled a building near 31st Street and Springfield Avenue after a neighbor noticed unusual foot traffic at Montero's apartment.

It was a friendly enough statement — "Hey, you have a lot of visitors. You must have a lot of friends." But Montero took it as a warning to find a new location and ended up at the house on Millard.

As part of her profession, Montero adopted a false identity, calling herself Sandra.

Shrewd and resourceful, she placed ads in Hoy, the Tribune Co.'s Spanish daily newspaper, and handed out "VIP" business cards offering $10 off massages.

The next-door neighbor said he was grilling carne asada in the backyard one day when Montero invited him over for a massage. He declined but didn't suspect prostitution took place next door. There was nothing unusual about the men who pulled up throughout the day in their work uniforms and left about a half-hour later, he said.

The homeowners, Maria Hurtado and her husband, Braulio, didn't suspect anything either and count themselves as victims of the madam.
Yet a year after the police busted Montero's sex trafficking ring, the city of Chicago sued the couple over the brothel.

Attorneys for the city asked a Cook County judge to declare that their home was a public nuisance and to hold them responsible for numerous building code violations.

"I don't want to remember the problems that woman left us," Maria Hurtado said in Spanish.

Roderick Drew, a spokesman for the city's Law Department, said the homeowners have made "satisfactory progress" on the housing violations.
Hurtado pleaded ignorance when asked how a prostitution ring could operate at a building she owned without her knowledge.

"You rent out an apartment and you don't return to it, only to set mouse traps," she said.

Money is money

Nothing about Rubicela Montero's appearance — short, with long black hair flowing past her shoulders — gave a hint of her activities.

"She looked like somebody who could've lived next door to any of us," said Louis Longhitano, the Cook County assistant state's attorney who prosecuted Montero on felony charges, including sex trafficking of a minor.

Montero, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, climbed her way up the hierarchy of the sex trade from the bottom. She entered the business by selling her own body after answering an ad in Hoy, according to Chicago police.

After making $60 to $70 for every trick, Montero realized how much the pimp was pocketing and opened her own massage parlor, police said.
Montero did laundry, bought sanitizers, lubricants and condoms, and kept the women productive.

There was little doubt what was expected of the women.

A violent john once manhandled one of Montero's prostitutes and demanded unprotected sex. When he returned a second time, the same woman told Montero she would not have sex with him.

But Montero sent her back into the room, telling her that money is money, according to police records.

A godsend

On Sunday mornings, when Montero attended church, she would leave her son Isair, then 17, at the brothel to watch the door, prosecutors said.

Trim and short with neat hair and olive skin, her son was friends with a 16-year-old girl student at Roberto Clemente Community Academy. Montero met her through her son and hired her into prostitution.

To Montero, the girl must have seemed a godsend: Several regular customers requested "really young girls," but she had been unable to meet their demands, police said.

Seeing a business opportunity, Montero marketed the girl to johns via text message, listing her real age.

That turned out to be invaluable proof for law enforcement to later show that Montero knew the girl was underage.

Eager to make a buck, Montero picked up the girl at her high school and drove her to the brothel, sometimes while she still was wearing a shirt adorned with her school's name, police said.

Montero later claimed the underage girl had been "doing massages" before working at the brothel, a charge prosecutors denied.

Asked later by police how she met the girl, Montero burst into tears.

In November 2011 she pleaded guilty to involuntary sexual servitude of a minor and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Her son was charged as an adult with pandering, pleaded guilty and was placed on two years' probation.

"If it was not for this son, that (16-year-old) victim would've never met the defendant," said Longhitano, the prosecutor, who spoke of Montero's "blatant disregard for the wellness of this child."

A court filing by a probation officer suggested the son was likely deported to Mexico. Renato Venegas, who was charged with harassing one of the prostitutes, is believed to have followed his son there.

In desperate need of money

Another victim — a mother of four children, including one with disabilities — figured Montero must work at a hotel or factory after seeing her washing so many clothes and towels at a coin laundry.

The illegal immigrant had recently lost her job and desperately needed money, so she approached Montero and asked for work. Montero offered $80 a day to the woman to clean houses and give massages.

But when she arrived for work, there were no houses to clean.

The first time a man asked for sex, the woman said no and stepped out to talk with Montero, who ignored the complaint and said she had already charged the man.

If the woman didn't get back in there, Montero threatened to "have her deported," according to police.

According to experts in human trafficking, it isn't unusual for women to be lured into the sex trade under false pretenses.

To keep the women under control, Montero didn't hesitate to threaten them, prosecutors charged. She later admitted to police that she said "crazy things" and had a nasty temper.

Another married mother of two who worked at the brothel said if she resisted Montero's demands, Montero warned that she not only knew where the woman lived but also where her children went to school. She also heard Montero talk of a friend who would put grenades in the women's cars and houses. The three women were working at the brothel at the time of the November 2010 bust were filled with fear, Longhitano said.

The mother of four quit the business after three months to work at a steel factory but had to move, though not far away, after Montero kept calling and banging on her door.

Montero threatened that she would be "found dead in an alley" if she didn't return, according to police. One day, Montero followed the woman home after bumping into her on the street. The woman had quit the steel company because the extreme heat caused health problems.

The madam renewed her harassment until the woman returned to a life of prostitution, according to police.

But after a few months, she could not endure the abuse. She called Chicago police and was routed to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline. She left a message that immigrants and children were being trafficked in Chicago and other details about the brothel.

By calling the hotline, she became one of 471 victims who reported their own sexual exploitation in 2010, a number that grows each year as awareness is raised on the issue, according to the Polaris Project, which operates the hotline.

"It is more common for us to get a tip from a neighbor, community member, service provider," said Megan Fowler of the nonprofit dedicated to combating human trafficking. "But we have been seeing a significant increase in victims calling on their own behalf."

The woman did not escape the brothel until after Chicago police Officer Franklin Paz Jr. walked into the house at 31st and Millard, posing as a john.

He was investigating the tip.

Paz picked out a girl he thought looked particularly young and arranged to pay her for sex. Instead he radioed for backup and shut down the operation.

At the police station, Montero kept threatening the women, yelling for them to keep quiet, prosecutors said.

Since the bust, prosecutors haven't said much about the victims' fate except that one — because she was a victim of human trafficking — received a visa that allowed her to stay in the country.

"The fact that they're all alive and well is a start," Longhitano said. "They were put at tremendous risk."

Discreet business

"It's a relatively discreet business," Longhitano said when asked how a brothel could spring up unnoticed in Little Village.

Many brothels aren't "terribly obvious," added Jack Blakey, Longhitano's supervisor as head of special prosecutions in State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's office.

Although the next-door neighbor saw men frequently arriving at the house at 31st and Millard, it took a victim to alert police to the brothel, not neighbors or street cops.

Paul Fuentes, Montero's defense attorney who grew up in Pilsen, another heavily Hispanic neighborhood, said he knows why a brothel could go unnoticed for so long.

"First of all, they're very transient areas," Fuentes said. "People move in for a little while, then they move out."

There's a lot of foot traffic in Little Village, particularly near 26th Street. It's also not unusual for Hispanics, often with large extended families, to have numerous visitors. And besides, if some of the neighbors are in the country illegally, they wouldn't want to notify the authorities.

"Even though they're poor neighborhoods," Fuentes said, "a lot of people still work there. A lot of them aren't home when it's daylight out, so they don't know what's going on (in their own community)."

But in interviews, law enforcement and experts in human trafficking question how such high-traffic establishments can go unnoticed by neighbors.

"For many of the issues faced by our communities, people look the other way," said Shelby French, executive director of the International Organization for Adolescents, an anti-trafficking group. "Sometimes we're not as engaged with our neighborhoods as we should be."

Chicago police Sgt. Traci Walker, a 15-year veteran, pointed out that while she's trained to notice criminal activity, residents are not. Still, some do pick up on unusual activity in their community, even if they choose to look the other way, she said.

"They might not identify it as sex trafficking, but I'm sure they notice that there's some sort of illegal activity taking place and … turn a blind eye," Walker said. "Some (figure), 'It's not affecting me. I'll mind my own business.'"
Little Village house becomes home to brothel -