LOS ANGELES—Acting on information gathered from billboards, alternative weeklies, and Internet banner ads, an FBI strike team liberated 14 dazed, sallow, and undernourished American Apparel models in a raid on the controversial organization's downtown Los Angeles compound early Monday.
"There were girls lying everywhere—draped over furniture, sprawled spread-eagled in the corner, and huddled close like animals," FBI Special Agent Curtis Froman, who oversaw the raid, said at a press conference. "Many of them had been given nothing more than a pair of tube socks or men's briefs to wear."
Froman said it took agents nearly 20 minutes to cut through the holding-cell padlocks, only to find the ambiguously ethnic-looking captives living in "unspeakable conditions."
"They just stared up at us with blank expressions of utter confusion," Froman added. "I don't think they'd seen the sun in weeks."
Nine American Apparel security enforcers were also killed during the raid.
The models, who range in age from 18 to 22 but appear to be 12 to 14, were taken to an emergency safehouse where they were given food, clothing, and access to soap. Officials said they were conducting tests to determine whether the girls were subjected to brainwashing during their captivity.
"I thought it would never end," said Fiara, a Brazilian-Finnish brunette who was held in an empty white room for weeks in nothing but Lycra tights and a halter top. "I can't believe how good it feels to wear something that buttons again."
After freeing the captives, many of whom appeared drugged, agents seized thousands of amateur Polaroids and several dozen pairs of oversized sunglasses whose purpose remains unclear, FBI reports said.
"We may never know the full extent of what went on in there," Special Agent Hugh Conroy said. "We do know they were held against their will in an airless, windowless basement under harsh fluorescent lights, forced to sign liability waivers, and posed in contorted positions on bare cement floors. "The humiliating combinations of flimsy unitards, leg warmers, and '70s-inspired tank tops they were forced to wear clearly show a deranged mind at work. Those poor, poor girls."
Several models said they were initially drawn in by American Apparel's progressive environmental policies, sweatshop-free manufacturing, and youthful corporate identity. But their dreams of success were soon shattered.
"Before I knew it, I was squatting on the floor in this humid room with a camera pointed at my crotch," said model Gabrielle, whose image can be found on the back page of this newspaper.
Law enforcement agencies have long suspected that the company's much-vaunted vertically integrated structure deliberately hid the unpleasant realities of this international model-exploitation ring. Despite their ongoing investigations, agents present during the raid were "completely unprepared" for the level of degradation they discovered inside the American Apparel facility.
"I'll never forget those hollow, emotionless eyes," Special Agent Jane Cosgrove said. "I don't care how many stock options they were given—nothing is worth what those girls went through."
Still at large, FBI sources say, is the models' alleged captor, a shadowy, unkempt, elaborately facial-haired figure in his late 30s or early 40s known only as "the Creepy Man."