- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - A woman who came from a poor family in Thailand became a prostitute in Hawaii through working in the massage industry, her defense attorney said at her sentencing Thursday.

Khemwika Ernst “worked very hard,” her attorney, Catherine Gutierrez, said. “Unfortunately the trade that she chose was not legal.”

U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway said she took those circumstances - along with her husband’s suicide - into account when sentencing her to six months in federal prison.

In a deal with prosecutors, Ernst pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and filing false tax returns.

More than $525,000 can be traced to her working as a prostitute from 2008 to 2014, prosecutors said.

According to her plea agreement, she deposited cash into a bank account she shared with her husband. When the bank questioned the large deposits, she started mailing cash to her husband or father-in-law in New Jersey. The couple used some of the money to buy a house in Newton, New Jersey. No mortgage or financing was used to purchase the home for $390,000, her plea agreement said.

Michael Ernst shot and killed himself in New Jersey a month after he and his wife were indicted, according to court records.

The Ernsts were married in 2004 and lived in Hawaii until 2010, when the Navy transferred Michael Ernst to Maryland and then to Virginia, according to court records. His wife and their son remained in Hawaii until 2014, when they moved to New Jersey.

Khemwika Ernst has already suffered for her actions, Gutierrez said, through losing her husband and 10-year-old son who now lives with relatives.

Through tears, Khemwika Ernst apologized in court. “In my life, all I want to do is be a good mother to my son,” she said.

“This is a difficult case for me,” Mollway said in explaining why she was departing from the sentencing guideline range of 18 to 24 months for each count. Prosecutors recommended eight months.

Mollway noted that Ernst sacrificed her schooling to work on her family’s farm in Thailand and that her first husband was abusive.

“At the same time, she did plead guilty to serious offenses,” Mollway said, adding that the she earned hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years even though she initially got involved in prostitution for “mere subsistence.”

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