At a press conference in September 2018, Department of Homeland Security agents told reporters they had successfully broken up a transnational ring of illegal massage parlors forcing Asian immigrants into sex slavery. What they didn’t say, however, is that two of their own agents had paid for sex with the alleged victims.
As part of the two-year, $15,000 investigation into the massage parlors, two DHS agents engaged in sex acts with the alleged trafficking victims at least 10 times, according to DHS and local police department investigation reports uncovered by Today’s News-Herald. Now the case against the alleged traffickers is unraveling as the federal agents refuse to testify in courts.
“To solve a crime of victims who were being forced to have sex, the officers decided to have sex with them,” Brad Rideout, an attorney for one of the women arrested for money laundering, told The Daily Beast. “There seems to be no limits on their activities and there seems to be no boundaries.”
Authorities say the trafficking sting started in 2016, when local police received reports of unusual activity at several massage parlors in Lake Havasu City and Bullhead City. By April 2018, the police departments had determined that some of the employees might be victims of human trafficking. That’s when they reached out to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) investigation arm for assistance.
Weeks later, in a DHS investigation referred to in official documents as “Operation Asian Touch,” two DHS agents were sent undercover to visit the parlors. In the investigation reports, the agents describe haggling with their masseuses over hand jobs and asking them to bare their breasts for anywhere from $40 to $120.
[su_quote]The visits generated insights such as ‘the female was very skinny with small breasts,’ and ‘any time the female would say anything she would get really close and whisper.[/su_quote]
The agents, known only as “Arturo” and “Sergio,” returned to each location as many as four times, according to the investigation reports. The visits generated insights such as “the female was very skinny with small breasts,” and “any time the female would say anything she would get really close and whisper.” After one visit, the undercover officer reportedly testified he was “80 percent sure” that the woman he had contact with was the target of the investigation.
Police raided the massage parlors in September 2018, arresting eight people on charges of sex trafficking, money laundering, and operating a house of prostitution, among other things. In a press conference, deputy special agent Lon Wiegand said the suspects were part of a transnational criminal organization that trafficked women through multiple massage parlors in the area, according to the Mohave Daily News.
Wiegand described the women’s working conditions as “deplorable” and “unsanitary,” and said they had been forced to work seven days a week, for more than 12 hours at a time. The women’s only income came from their tips for sexual services, he said, and their movements were “extremely restricted.” Investigators said the ring’s alleged leader, Amanda Yamauchi, transported workers directly from the Las Vegas airport to the businesses in Mohave County.
But the charges against Yamauchi and her alleged partner were dropped last week after the DHS agents refused to testify in her case. The investigation, which Lake Havasu City Police Sgt. Tom Gray told Today’s News-Herald took almost 200 hours, has so far resulted in only three convictions—one for prostitution, another for soliciting a prostitute, and a third for attempted pandering.
“We just can’t produce them,” Mohave Deputy County Attorney Kellen Marlow told Today’s News-Herald of the DHS agents. “Local law enforcement investigators would be readily available, but federal witnesses are not. And from what I’ve been told, they’re not going to be available to testify any time soon.”
Rideout filed a motion last month asking for the agents’ full names, badge numbers, and any other identifying information necessary to request information on their actions in the investigation. According to the motion, so far the state has provided only reports written by local law enforcement officers involved in the investigation.
“It is unclear how an ICE officer having sexual relations with human trafficking victims in Mohave County, Arizona protects the nation from terrorist attack or secures its borders,” Rideout wrote.
DHS did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. Bullhead City Public Information Officer Emily Fromelt told Today’s News-Herald that DHS had conducted its own internal investigation into the agents’ activities but did not reveal the outcome.
A similar raid on massage parlors in Florida earlier this year—which made headlines after New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft patronized one of the businesses—also resulted in zero trafficking convictions. The investigation into 10 spas in southern Florida was billed by police as a rescue operation for the impoverished immigrant workers. But in April, an assistant state attorney in Palm Beach testified in court that there was “no human trafficking that arises out of this investigation.” Some of the women are now being threatened with deportation.
Results like these have led sex workers’ rights activists to speak out against the raids, which they say do little to help the so-called victims they purport to save.
“Police like to get in front of TV cameras and state that they conducted a raid and rescued victims and arrested a bunch of men and closed down this sex trafficking operation,” said Alex Andrews, the co-founder of sex workers’ rights organization SWOP Behind Bars.
“But even in these raids where they’re targeting the men, they’re not having any impact at all on the lives of sex workers or the lives of sex trafficking victims.”