Minneapolis (Startribune) — A multi-agency investigation that reaches as far as Tennessee is focusing on a “large scale” Somali gang-run prostitution ring in Minnesota, according to court documents.

Details of the case came to a head when a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator applied in Ramsey County for a search warrant to get the cell phone records of a 15-year-old girl, who could hold the key to the case.

The girl, known by the nickname Ayan Cherry, has a long history as a runaway, and was being promoted as a prostitute by “a group of Somalian males,” according to the affidavit in Ramsey County.

The girl was questioned in July 2009 by St. Paul police officer Heather Weyker in connection with a robbery in Richfield. She lied about her identity and involvement in prostitution, but Weyker “interviewed other witnesses of this Human Trafficking ring” and learned that the girl was “controlled by the Somalian gangs,” the affidavit said.

Authorities seized her phone to search for text messages, calls, contacts, pictures, videos and other information.

According to the search warrant affidavit filed by special agent Ann Quinn, the phone is key because the victim, identified as A.A.A., “does not have a permanent home and often stays with various members of this prostitution gang, her cellular telephone is the main way of communication that the victim has with other members of this organization to include prostitution customers.

“Your affiant believes that the recovery of the data to include photos in this telephone will assist in the investigation of this Somalian Human Trafficking Ring and may reveal the identity of suspects, witnesses and additional victims.”

According to the affidavit, Quinn spoke to members of the St. Paul Police Department, witnesses and A.A.A. “in connection with a large scale Somalian gang Human Trafficking ring based in Minnesota.”

The affidavit was filed Friday, and obtained by the Star Tribune.

The girl referenced in the affidavit testified in federal court in Nashville on July 28 in connection with the trafficking investigation, the document shows. The BCA, St. Paul police and FBI cooperated in finding and escorting the girl to Tennessee.

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The girl’s previous criminal record includes implications in assaults in Rochester and a tampering with an auto citation in Olmsted County. She had outstanding warrants in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, and is now in custody in Hennepin County.

The BCA could not be reached for comment, and St. Paul police deferred comment to the U.S. attorney’s office in Tennessee.

“We can’t confirm or deny that there’s an investigation,” said Van Vincent, assistant U.S. attorney in Tennessee.

Related court documents had been filed openly in Hennepin County, and the affidavit in Ramsey County was briefly public until a television report Tuesday night led to it being sealed.

The news surprised the Somali community in Minnesota.

“I’ve seen some of the elders and they are shocked,” said Dahir Jibreel, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center.

The ongoing FBI investigation into the young Somali-American men, who left Minneapolis to fight in Somali with the terrorist group Al-Shabab, is one of many difficult issues facing the community.

Teen gangs and teen prostitution are known problems in the community, Jibreel said, but the human trafficking is a new phenomenon. Jibreel said he did not know who A.A.A. is, but said girls who have recently arrived in the country are especially vulnerable.

The connection between Minnesota and Tennessee alleged in court documents surprised Jibreel, who said he is trying to contact Somali leaders there for more information.

Sources: CHAO XIONG and ALLIE SHAH for Star Tribune, and ABC News, Channel 5.

September 23, 2010