Three men enslaved more than 20 members of a Chinese acrobatic team, feeding them little, paying them next to nothing to perform and confiscating their passports and visas.
A woman who worked as an interpreter for China Star Acrobats escaped late last month and contacted authorities, the FBI said. She told police she and 20 teammates - including five teens ages 14 to 17- were being held against their will.
Social workers interviewed 14 of them Friday, according to a criminal complaint.
"They literally hugged the investigators when they arrived," said FBI spokesman David Staretz.
You Zhi Li, 38, Yang Shen, 21, and Jun Hu, 43, were arrested this week on slavery charges. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for July 13.
The acrobats said Li promised them $300 (220 EUR) to $1,600 (1,174 EUR) a month to perform with the China Star Acrobats, a team that traveled and performed at schools across the United States.
"It's a cultural program," said Anthony Wright, Li's court-appointed defense attorney. "Chinese folks get to come over here and learn about America."
Prosecutors said the acrobats were forced to stay in Li's home, where up to six lived in each bedroom. Most had been brought to Las Vegas months ago.
The acrobats told authorities they were fed minimal amounts of instant noodles, rice and vegetables twice a day. They said they sometimes had to perform twice a day, were awakened early and did not get to sleep until very late.
According to the complaint, Li confiscated visas and passports and told them their phone calls home would be monitored.
One girl who performed as a contortionist told authorities she was being paid $50 (36 EUR) a month, while a boy who said he had been traveling with the troupe for two years said he received $100 (73 EUR) per month.
The acrobats are now being provided shelter, food and medical attention, said Terri Miller, director of the Anti-Trafficking League Against Slavery, a task force formed last year in the Las Vegas Valley.