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Woman rescued from human traffickers

Lannie was a girl preyed on by human traffickers. But she had one thing going for her: two men who would stop at nothing to get her back
/ Source: Dateline NBC

October 5, 2006. "Troop" Edmonds and his Philippine-born wife, Ravina, are at home in Oregon when they receive a panicked call from overseas.

Troop Edmonds: I’m sitting there. I'm trying to watch a football game. And all of a sudden my wife's cell phone rings. My wife gets really upset.

On the other end on the line is their 22-year-old Filipino niece, Lannie Ejercito…

Troop Edmonds: She was scared. Crying. And in total desperation.Chris Hansen: And what did she say?Troop Edmonds:”Get me out of here!”

And then someone on the other end takes the phone away from Lannie.

Troop Edmonds: She said -- if you want your niece back, you have to send us $1,200 and we'll give you a bank account to send it to. And she hung up.Chris Hansen: They wanted the money wired to this bank account. And did this strike you as a ransom demand?Troop Edmonds: Yes.

It sounded like kidnappers. But all he knew for sure was that his niece was desperate.

Troop Edmonds: She wanted out of there. She didn't know what else to do so she called the only person on the planet that could possibly help her.

Troop and his wife had just finished putting Lannie through nursing school in the Philippines and thought, on balance, things were looking up.

Chris Hansen: How would you best describe her?Troop Edmonds: Good-looking, you know. Got everything to live for.

Lannie graduated, but then failed the national nursing exam, which meant her dream of coming to America to work as a nurse was on hold.

Her desperation was palpable as the phone call continued. Lannie provided additional details which led her uncle to fear the worst.

Chris Hansen: What did you think Lannie had gotten herself into?Troop Edmonds: I thought she was going to be ending up being raped and then put into a life of-- of prostitution.

In other words, he worried that his niece had fallen into the shadowy world of human trafficking, where many are lured by false promises to places thousands of miles from home and find themselves thrown into the sex trade.

Troop Edmonds wasn't sure where Lannie was exactly or who she was with but it was clear she was in trouble.

Her family knew she'd been offered a job as a hotel singer in Malaysia -- 1500 miles away from her home in the Philippines.

But when she got to Malaysia, her passport was taken and she was told to sign an 8-year "contract" meaning she would be in Malaysia, against her will, until she was 30.

Lannie had been trafficked.

Ambassador Lagon: In essence, it's slavery.

Ambassador Mark Lagon says human trafficking is now one of the the fastest growing forms of international organized crime.

Ambassador Lagon: Analysts in the U.S. government estimate there are between 500,000 and 1.1 million people who are trafficked across borders from country to country.

That's every year. Lagon, who leads U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking, says it's basically a bait and switch.

Ambassador Lagon: They're told, "We can get you out of this awful economic situation you're in with better work, the conditions will be good, the pay will be good” and often times it turns out to be the most gross form of sexual exploitation.

And Filipinos like Lannie are a frequent target. There is no shortage of horror stories.

Anna: I work here as a prostitute. I lost my virginity here, and then I got sick. I want to go home. Please help me.

Meet "Anna." Like Lannie, she was trafficked to Malaysia from the Philippines. Anna thought she was going to be a waitress, but when she arrived at this club in Malaysia she was told that “servicing customers” entailed going home with them.

She was forced to sign an official-looking contract which spells out how much she owes her traffickers.

Anna: Air ticket, 500 ringgit. Cash advance, 1,600 ringgit.

Experts call this "debt-bondage." Anna calls it a nightmare. On her first night in Malaysia, her virginity was sold for $80.

Anna: I can do nothing because my boss tell me I need -- I need to do that. If i did not do that, I cannot pay my debt. I will not -– I cannot go back to Philippines.

Locked inside an apartment above this club, she was forced to service a variety of customers, including Americans.

Two months ago, the Philippine embassy in Malaysia rescued Anna. She is free now, but not well.

Anna: Maybe i have -- I'm afraid I have AIDS.

As for Lannie Ejercito, her uncle Troop Edmonds -- a decorated former Marine -- wasn't going to let that happen to his niece. His wife gave him his marching orders.

Troop Edmonds: She said, “You've got to get my niece. Get her. And don't come back without her.” That's my assignment.

Troop Edmonds and his wife Ravina didn't know what was happening to their niece, Lannie Ejercito. But they knew she was in trouble. The pretty 22-year-old had taken what she thought was a legitimate job as a singer in Malaysia.

But, in fact, she'd been lured in by human traffickers who were demanding a ransom to free her. She was being forced to sign an eight year contract.

Troop Edmonds: She was scared. She wanted out of there. She's stuck in a situation that she has no control over and she doesn't want to spend eight years of her life there.

As it began to dawn on them that Lannie could be in the hands of some pretty dangerous people, they tried redialing the number of the cell phone used to make the ransom call. Maybe they could get a fix on where she was. It didn't work.

Chris Hansen: You know she's in Malaysia.Troop Edmonds: Uh-huh (affirm).Chris Hansen: You've got a phone number that doesn't appear to be good.Troop Edmonds: Right.Chris Hansen: That's all you got.Troop Edmonds: That's all I got. But then I call my friend Jerry up.

Jerry is Jerry Howe, who spent 26 years as an FBI special agent working everything from counterterrorism to organized crime to nearly 100 kidnappings. In fact, he worked the notorious Patty Hearst kidnapping case.

Jerry Howe: He said his niece had been kidnapped and he wanted to know if I could trace the phone number in any way.Troop Edmonds: Jerry says, "Yup. No problem. When we going?" I go, "Oh no, not you, too." So he was going.

Going to Asia, that is.

Whoever had Lannie probably never imagined what was headed their way as this pair of 60-somethings were about to launch an improbable rescue mission halfway across the globe.

Chris Hansen: Here you are, a retired agent. You've got your buddy Troop, and you guys just going to go over there and get her?Jerry Howe: Basically. Everybody asks me for a plan. From having to write these scenarios for undercover operations for the FBI, they-- it's-- it's kind of like a waste of paper. It's a-- what you want to happen but never does.Chris Hansen: So you guys were pretty much going to figure it out as you went along.Jerry Howe: That's really the only way you can do it.

Having worked the Hearst case, Jerry was especially worried that Lannie's captors might brainwash her during the eight years she would be "under contract."

Chris Hansen: What does that say to you? Eight years?Jerry Howe: They'll own her in eight years. I mean, psychologically she-- they-- they start immediately. So she is subservient to them. And after eight years, she'd be a robot.

A number of former CIA and FBI officials pitched in and supplied the pair with everything from handheld global positioning units to gyroscope-stabilized binoculars.

The plan -- to the extent there is one -- sounds pretty straightforward: zero in on Lannie's location, create a ruse to separate her from the traffickers, even kick in some doors if they have to. Whatever it takes to get her out of Malaysia as quickly as possible.

Chris Hansen: What did you think the chances were of actually finding Lannie and freeing her?Troop Edmonds: Maybe ten percent.Chris Hansen: Ten percent.Troop Edmonds: Yes. There's a chance. It wasn't hopeful.

After all, the men were traveling 8,000 miles from home to a country of 27 million people in hopes of finding one girl.

Troop Edmonds: I was just worried about the flight home without Lannie. Then breaking my wife's heart. She told me not to come back without her.Chris Hansen: What made you apprehensive about going on this trip?Troop Edmonds: You're dealing with bad people. And they all usually have guns. And they all-- and they're bad. I mean, really bad.

Finally, the mission is launched and we're invited along.

Because the two Americans don't know where Lannie is being held, they start in her hometown of Cebu in the southern Philippines.

In her home in this squatters' village, Lannie's mother tells the searchers how it all started.

In early October 2006, she accompanied her daughter to this church, where Lannie and 15 others were told to gather for their trip to Malaysia.

They were met by a woman named Rachel Sabal. She had recruited Lannie and the others, promising them high-paying jobs as singers in Malaysia. For Lannie's rescuers, it's the first big lead.

Jerry Howe: Lannie's mother recognizing and knowing who Rachel was, was the key.

Jerry and Troop pass the name to police who check travel records and quickly discover that a 'Rachel Sabal' has recently returned to the Philippines.

It's a lucky break -- she's still nearby.

Detective Jacob Macabali: She just arrived from Kuala Lumpur four days ago.

Jerry and Troop ride along as detectives go looking for Rachel.

Detective Jacob Macabali: Well if there is a written complaint we can go and just--Troop Edmonds: --arrest Rachel.

When they do find her, Rachel is defiant, insisting that Lannie and the others went to Malaysia of their own free will and are being treated well. But the cops aren't buying it.

Troop Edmonds: They sweet-talked her and her father into the police station. And then they bilked her for information. And she was getting confident. She was pretty confident--

So confident is Rachel that she's done nothing wrong that she provides police with a crude map showing where she claims Lannie and the 15 other Filipinos are living. It’s 1500 miles away, in the Malaysian city of Penang.

By this time, it's clear Rachel is in some hot water. She's given a crash course in Filipino law.

Officer: ...the recruitment and transportation of persons by others using violence or threat of violence...

Rachel calls her sister, who we learn is in Malaysia keeping watch over Lannie and the others.

Jerry and Troop discover that the number Rachel has dialed is the same one Lannie's captors used to make the ransom call.

Troop Edmonds: They had a district attorney-type thing who came and was going to try to check out everybody's story. And he went in and had one talk with her and he told us, "Book her. She's the most blatant human trafficker I've ever seen."Troop Edmonds: And then they threw her in the clink and she fell apart at the seams.

While this is all going on, Rachel's cell phone rings -- and you won't believe who's on the other end. It's Lannie.

But it's like she's a different person than the one who called Oregon in a panic only weeks earlier. She tells her mother things are fine in Malaysia and that she wants to stay. Her uncle Troop doesn’t believe it, fearful that somone else is putting those words in her mouth.

Troop Edmonds: I just told her, Lannie, we are coming for you. And we're coming now.

And as quickly as they arrived, Troop and Jerry depart the Philippines for Malaysia, unsure of Lannie's precise location.

It's been three weeks since Lannie Ejercito fell prey to a human trafficking network stretching from the Philippines to Malaysia.

She's managed to make two calls to her family.

During the first call she was in a panic, but the second time she called she was peculiarly calm.

Was someone controlling her?

Jerry Howe: I felt everything she said has been orchestrated. She's been told to say what they want her to say.

Retired FBI agent Jerry Howe and Lannie's uncle, Troop Edmonds, are in Asia trying to find and free Lannie.

Flying into Malaysia, the pair knew the clock was ticking.

The arrest of Lannie's recruiter provided important leads but may also have given those holding Lannie a heads up.

Troop Edmonds: I'm worried, we've wasted so much time. They know we're coming. They're going to just be splitting and taking Lannie. We'll never find her. I mean, how we going to find her?

Armed with a crude map that Rachel the reruiter drew for police, Jerry and Troop canvass a neighborhood near the university in Penang.

Lannie's rescuers are pointed to an apartment on the top floor.

Jerry Howe: There were lots of shoes outside the door. But the shoes didn't look like shoes that students would wear. So I felt that we had the right place.

But he can't proceed further without help from the authorities, and that's a bit of a crapshoot.

Unlike the Philippines, Malaysia hasn't always been the most hospitable toward America or Americans.

Troop Edmonds: The Filipino police said, "Troop and Jerry, you be real careful. That's a Muslim country over there and, you know, and you're American. And, you know."Chris Hansen: You might not be welcome there? Is that what they were saying?Troop Edmonds: Yeah. That's what they told me. They said, "We don't even like to go there."

After two days of conducting their own investigation, the two Americans roll the dice and approach the Malaysian police.

Troop Edmonds: We just walk up. And we say, well, we'd like to talk to the supervisor. Somebody in charge.Chris Hansen: And they don't know you're coming.Troop Edmonds: Oh, no.Chris Hansen: You don't have an appointment.Troop Edmonds: No, we--Chris Hansen: You don't have a contact name.Troop Edmonds: We don't. No contact name.Chris Hansen: No phone number.Troop Edmonds: No.Chris Hansen: Nothing.Troop Edmonds: Nothing.Chris Hansen: You just show up.Troop Edmonds: Just show up.

They're taken to see a top police official who doesn't quite know what to make of the men or their mission.

Troop Edmonds: Here's these two-- looks like a couple of middle-aged losers, you know. I mean, it's like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon stumbling across Asia. And here's this incredible story about we're looking for a young Asian girl who was lured into this human trafficking thing. And we're asking for their help.

Whether out of sheer curiosity or a sense of duty, the police agree to send a team to the apartment.

Malaysian policeman: (bangs on door) Hello? Hello?

The window is open, and there are still shoes out front -- all of which suggests someone is inside. But no one answers, and the police move in.

The place is empty. And it seems whoever was living there left in a hurry.

Is Rachel's map bogus? Or are Troop and Jerry just too late?

Troop Edmonds: When they weren't there when we cased the place our hearts sank a little bit. I mean, a nerve-- I wouldn't say a little bit. A lot.

But then in sweeping the apartment the Malaysian police find something.

Jerry Howe: That's her! A picture of Lannie.

Lannie had left behind a scrapbook.

Jerry Howe: It just flashed by me [and] I knew it was her. This one. Well, we're at the right place.

Right place, wrong time. It looked like it had something to do with that phone call Lannie placed days earlier.

Jerry Howe: When we were in the Philippines Troop was actually able to talk to Lannie for a few minutes. And Troop announced that we were coming, which I may not have done as an FBI agent, but I understand as an uncle saying, "We're coming to get you." I'm sure they moved them because of that.

The scrapbook is a hopeful sign. Troop wonders if Lannie has left it behind as a deliberate clue that she'd been there.

Troop Edmonds: The good thing is, it was proof that this-- they actually were here. So we got something to go on. And the bad part of it is-- is, you know, she's gone. Chris Hansen: What was your worst fear at that point?Troop Edmonds: Well, it was a-- I mean how do you find somebody in a country like Malaysia? I mean my god.

But it wasn't just could they find her but would they find her before she was victimized?

Every year, the U.S. State Department ranks countries on their efforts against human trafficking. In its most recent report, Malaysia is at the bottom -- alongside North Korea, Iran and Sudan. The State Department says that human trafficking and the sex trade it fuels are rampant here. Yet in all of 2006, not a single trafficker was prosecuted.

Despite its reputation as a conservative, predominantly Muslim nation, Malaysia has a thriving sex industry. We went out with our cameras and met girls from half a dozen countries working as prostitutes.

Madame: Bring the girls who can speak English for you...

In this upscale karaoke bar, the madame literally paraded the girls before us.

Madame: Lisa, Nadia...

It's a world "Anna" knows only too well. She came to Malaysia for a waitressing job only to be told she had to work as a prostitute. She went to Malaysian immigration authorities for help.

Anna: I want them to help me -- to rescue me -- so I can go back Philippines.

But instead, she says, a top immigration official called her traffickers and then passed along some words of advice.

Anna: “Go back to work.”

Anna says some of the Malaysian police and immigration officials were actually clients of the clubs where she worked and helped themselves to the girls.

Malaysian officials are notorious for turning a blind eye to trafficking. So much so that when victims like Anna show up looking for help, they are often brought up on immigration charges.

Troop and Jerry know they need to find Lannie and find her fast.

Chris Hansen: At this point she had been missing for three weeks?Troop Edmonds: Yeah. Three weeks, that's about right.Chris Hansen: That's a long time?Troop Edmonds: Oh, yeah. I mean they could have already gone through the initiations of the prostitution thing and all that. But, you know, you still want to get her back.

They'd come 8,000 miles to rescue her and watched as police raided an apartment where she may have been held captive.

But they were too late. Neighbors say a fleet of taxis arrived a couple days earlier and took Lannie Ejercito and fifteen other young people away.

Lannie's uncle Troop and his friend, retired FBI agent Jerry Howe, asked cabbies if they remembered seeing Lannie or the others.

They were desperate, even willing to consult a local faith healer with a reputation for finding missing persons.

Then -- finally -- a break. Word that Lannie has surfaced in of all places a police station.

They race over to see her. And Troop and Lannie are reunited behind closed doors.

Troop Edmonds: As soon as i walked in that door she jumped up and she gave me this really strong hug. And she was squeezing me hard. And she just wouldn't let me go. I thought Lannie was just going to go with us and that was it. And-- turns out that wasn't it.

The reunion is short-lived. Jerry and Troop discover that Lannie was brought to the police station by Kenny Kang, one of the people who has been holding her captive. Kang, who reportedly has ties to Chinese organized crime, may have brought her in to convince police she is not being held against her will.

In fact, she's been saying all is well--she's fine.

Jerry Howe: Lannie had already given them a statement saying that Kang wasn't doing anything wrong. But--Chris Hansen: And what was your problem with that statement?Jerry Howe: Well, he was there.

The Malaysian police were interviewing Lannie with Kenny Kang sitting right next to her.

Jerry Howe, who's conducted hundreds of interviews during his 26 years in the FBI, is shocked that the lead detective failed to separate the victim from the victimizer.

Jerry Howe: And when I suggested that, it's like the light bulb went off in his head. "Oh, yeah, that's a good idea." (laughter) And they'll move-- they moved him away from her so should could speak. But she was still terrified.

Kang is moved to an adjoining room where he proceeds to make himself at home.

Chris Hansen: Did it appear to you that Kenny Kang had a preexisting relationship with some of the police officers?Jerry Howe: Boy, did I-- I got that impression. I just--Chris Hansen: And what gave you that impression?Jerry Howe: Well, he's laughing. He's making phone calls. He's joking with the police officer that he's with. And we can see all this through the glass in the offices there. I was--Chris Hansen: He was treating this as a minor inconvenience?Jerry Howe: Right. Minor inconvenience. And thought he was going to leave.

But now, with Kang out of earshot, Lannie makes clear where she stands. She wants out. But that's easier said than done.

Chris Hansen: Who had the passport?Jerry Howe: Kang.

And he isn't about to give it back.

Now her uncle's blood was beginning to boil. He wasn't leaving without the passport, and he wasn't the slightest bit afraid of a showdown with Kang, a reputed mobster.

Chris Hansen: You were mad.Troop Edmonds: Oh, I was really mad. And then when I looked in his eyes I saw this horrible thing. It was like-- not a chance am I going to give you the passport. It's like, "She's my property. And she's leaving this police station with me."

Although there's no evidence money changed hands, Lannie's frustrated rescuers start to suspect the worst: that the police are in Kang's pocket.

Troop Edmonds: He paid that other bastard off! That's why he wanted back in there. He did not want to hand over the passport. He paid off that other guy.Jerry Howe: We need to get the passport and get out of here.Chris Hansen: Was there a point when you started to think, "Maybe we're not going to get this resolved, even here at the police department?"Jerry Howe: When the incident happened with the passport, I was very worried at that point that we were all going to (laughter) end up in jail. And--Chris Hansen: The whole group?Jerry Howe: The whole (laughter) group of us, yeah.

And just when it seemed things couldn't get any stranger, in walks a man who describes himself as Kenny Kang's business partner, a gynecologist named Ng Kok Kwang.

The doctor says he has a side business supplying singers to work at various hotels and he insists he's not engaged in human trafficking.

That's what he claims. But then he pulls something straight out of the human trafficking playbook, arguing that before Lannie and the others can go free they must first reimburse him for the money he says he spent transporting, housing and training them.

That translates to nearly $60,000 -- a sum so high it would take the average Filipino at least 20 years to pay it off.

We asked to see that eight year contract Dr. Ng keeps talking about.

Contract or no contract, Jerry and Troop make it clear they aren't about to give in.

Finally, convinced Troop and Jerry mean business, Dr. Ng calls it a day. Lannie is free to leave with her passport.

Also free to leave: Dr. Ng and his cohort Kenny Kang.

The police let them walk.

Chris Hansen: Now, you were out of the police station. But you were not out of the country.Jerry Howe: That's true. And as much as I really wanted to go find the other girls, we felt that it was probably better to get her out before whatever organization Kang was associated with would come looking for us.Chris Hansen: You weren't wasting any time?Jerry Howe: No. No. Once we decided to go, we left in a hurry, yeah.

But they weren't home free. They still had to get out of Malaysia, steering clear of angry human traffickers and government officials who seemed to treat the traffickers with kid gloves.

They wouldn't be safe until they reached the Philippines. But would they finally get the whole story from Lannie?

Troop Edmonds and Jerry Howe succeed in freeing Lannie Ejercito and they return her to the Philippines for an emotional reunion with her family.

It was only when Lannie reached the Philippines that she confirmed the truth of her ordeal. She says her trafficker's promise of a singing job was an empty one.

Chris Hansen: They took your passport. They locked you in an apartment. You never got an audition?Lannie: Yeah.Chris Hansen: Were you a prisoner?Lannie: Yeah, we were a prisoner.

She said she only pretended everything was fine in front of the police and on the phone to her parents for one reason: self-preservation.

Lannie: I'm afraid they're going to do something bad at me. So have no choice then.Chris Hansen: Where do you think you'd be today if your uncle and Jerry hadn't rescued you?Lannie: That's a big problem. I really don't know.Chris Hansen: Do you think you could have ended up in jail?Lannie: Yeah.Chris Hansen: Or still locked in that apartment?Lannie: Yeah.

Although she was relieved to be rescued, she was scared for those she left behind: 15 other young trafficking victims.

As far as she knew, they were still in the hands of Dr Ng and Kenny Kang, who we last saw leaving the police station, apparently with no trafficking charges having been filed against them.

And when we went back to Malaysia to ask him about what Lannie told us, there he was, still free and still practicing medicine.

So what about those eight year contracts which Dr. Ng and Kenny Kang pressured Lannie and the others to sign? How could they possibly be on the level?

Dr. Ng insists Lannie owes him money for training he admits she never received and for housing, which Lannie says amounted to being locked up for weeks on end.

But Lannie isn't the only one accusing him of wrong-doing.

Earlier this year, Philippine officials staged a dramatic late-night operation in Malaysia and freed the 15 others who Dr. Ng and his partner, Kenny Kang, kept locked up for over three months. We sat down with some of them.

Chris Hansen: So what happened after Lannie left the apartment? Male voice: Kenny started threatening us.Chris Hansen: Kenny started threatening you?Male voice: Yeah.Female voice: They said when we can't pass the audition, they will send us to prostitution.Chris Hansen: To prostitution?Female voice: Yeah.Chris Hansen: Kenny Kang said this to you?Male voice: Yes all of us.Female voice: Yeah.Chris Hansen: To all of you even the boys?Male voice: Yeah.Chris Hansen: So if you don't make the audition, and start bringing in some money as singers, you are going to go into prostitution.Female voice: Yes.Male voice: That's right.Chris Hansen: How did that make you feel when he said "I'm going to put you in to prostitution"?Female voice: I was scared.Female voice: Of course, you're scared.Chris Hansen: Do you think he meant it? Was he serious?Male voice: Yeah, he's serious.Female voice: He is.Chris Hansen: At the end of the day, you didn't just rescue one girl.Jerry Howe: No. We actually got, I think 15. Yeah. Total.Chris Hansen: Now you've solved a lot of cases as an FBI agent, as a security consultant, in retirement?Jerry Howe: Yeah.Chris Hansen: Where does this case rank?Jerry Howe: Oh, it's the best one. It really is. Yeah. It's-- I mean, there's a, you know, lots of criminals. Lots of victims. But this was really a, this was really a highlight. And to be able to do it without a badge was (laughter), that was really great. Chris Hansen: The reality is it sort of played out like a buddy film in a way.Troop Edmonds: Well, it did. That's what makes the thing such a great story. Is that finally there's a good ending and everybody is pretty much at peace with the whole thing. Chris Hansen: Lannie, where do you think you'll be 10 years from now?Lannie: Successful nurse. (laughter)Chris Hansen: A successful nurse.Lannie: Yes.

Lannie recently re-took her nursing exam and is determined to come to the U.S. to work.

Chris Hansen: Do you think you can do it?Lannie: Yes. If I fail, then go again. Fail it, go again.Chris Hansen: But you'll make it.Lannie: I will make it.

Lannie says she was saved from an ordeal that could have ruined her life and her health. Anna, who you also met in our story, was not so lucky. Since her rescue, she's been diagnosed with human papillomavirus --a risk factor for cervical cancer. She will soon undergo a test for HIV/AIDS.

Just last month, the government of Malaysia enacted a law designed to crack down on human trafficking. That said, President Bush will decide next month if Malaysia should be sanctioned for what U.S. officials call its poor record in combating human trafficking.