A three-year federal probe into sex-trafficking in Arizona massage parlors fell apart after reports that federal agents got kinky while making their case.
Dubbed “Operation Asian Touch,” the investigation by Homeland Security Investigations targeted parlors in the cities of Havasu and Bullhead starting in May 2016 but fizzled out after defense lawyers learned that the agents engaged in sex acts with their clients.
That’s because the agency refused to release the names of the agents and dropped the whole thing, according to an investigative project at Arizona State University published by triblive.com.
One defense lawyer said he got wind of the twist in the case while listening to one of the agent’s undercover audio recordings.
“They talked about a (sex act) and I believe I was hearing one take place,” said attorney Mike Wozniak. “In every other case I’ve ever had, the undercover officer did not go through with the actual sexual act.”
“I found it pretty repugnant that they were engaged in sexual acts with people that, under their theory, would have been the victims,” he said.
The investigation began after local police reported that local massage parlors may be serving as underground brothels and forcing sex-trafficking victims into prostitution.
According to documents reviewed for the report, two agents “repeatedly” paid for sexual acts with their targets — something local police said they were told in advance would be part of the investigation.
“Detectives were informed by HSI that the undercover sexual activity was authorized,” Bullhead police spokeswoman Emily Fromelt told triblive.
A Homeland Security policy manual leaked to the outlet says supervisors can authorize illegal activity during an investigation if deemed necessary but does not specifically address undercover sex — nor is it standard practice, one former agent told the outlet.
“I don’t recall the policy manual saying you can’t have sex with human-trafficking victims,” said former HSI agent Louie Garcia. “I just know that’s something we are not allowed to do.”
The case began to fall apart after defense lawyers received the evidence prosecutors planned to use.
In September, one attorney filed a court motion requesting the names and badge numbers of the undercover agents. Prosecutors argued unsuccessfully against it, and ultimately notified the court that “there will be no cooperation from federal partners in prosecuting the crimes they helped investigate.”
That’s when the case fell apart. Of the nine people charged, three had already pleaded guilty to local misdemeanor charges. The rest went free.
In a statement, ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe told the news outlet that “HSI is committed to placing the safety of potential victims at the forefront of every investigation.
“Conduct by a limited number of HSI agents involved in the investigation was not consistent with HSI policy.”
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