Homeland Security Investigations, a division of ICE, describes human trafficking as a “top investigative priority.” But its handling of recent sex-trafficking investigations in Arizona and beyond has raised questions about the agency’s undercover techniques.
‘Investigative techniques’ By Mackenzie Shuman, Molly Duerig, Grace Oldham, Rachel Gold and Meagan Sainz-Pasley Howard Center for Investigative Journalism
The women were forced to live and work in filth and near darkness, the federal agent said, surviving on only the tips they received from performing massages and sexual favors.
Lon Weigand, the deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Arizona, described them as “Asian females” who may be sex-trafficking victims. He praised the joint operation between federal agents and local police in western Arizona that led to their rescue and credited the “investigative techniques” that helped crack a “transnational criminal organization.”
Weigand assured those at a press conference called to announce the investigation’s successful conclusion that HSI had followed a “victim-based approach.” While he wouldn’t reveal anything more about the women, he added, “Know that they are now safe and being cared for.”
What Weigand didn’t say at that September 2018 press conference – although HSI documents show that some supervisors knew – was that federal undercover agents repeatedly paid for and engaged in sexual acts with the suspected victims as part of their investigation.
That fact, coupled with HSI’s refusal to let its agents testify at trial, torpedoed a case that was more than three years in the making. All felony charges against the accused ringleaders were dropped. And the women likely were retraumatized, sex-trafficking experts said.
Defense attorneys, whose clients went free because of HSI’s handling of the case, were outraged to learn of the agents’ “investigative techniques.”
“That’s our tax money,” said attorney Josephine Hallam, whose grandfather was the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. “Shouldn’t they be at the border, or doing something with terrorists rather than getting sex acts?”
(Source: Havasu Scanner Feed)
Lon Weigand, deputy special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Arizona, praises a multiagency sex-trafficking investigation at a Sept. 25, 2018, news conference in Lake Havasu City. Although nine people were arrested in the yearslong investigation, most charges were dropped when lurid details of agents’ behavior came to light.
Homeland Security Investigations is the largest investigative unit in the Department of Homeland Security, which was created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. HSI’s 7,000 agents have wide-ranging authority to investigate a variety of cross-border crimes, including sex- and human-trafficking. But for all its power and scope, HSI has received relatively little public attention, even though internal inspector-general reports have criticized it for a lack of accountability and oversight. HSI agents also have been involved in numerous shootings of civilians around the country, an investigation by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism revealed in February. Internal reviews and other data about the shootings have been denied under federal Freedom of Information Act requests.
“HSI is committed to placing the safety of potential victims at the forefront of every investigation,” said Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, a spokeswoman with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, HSI’s parent agency. “Conduct by a limited number of HSI agents involved in the investigation was not consistent with HSI policy.”
But HSI’s own documents, statements by local police, and the federal government’s response refute the idea this was a rogue action.
Brad Rideout, who represented two women charged in the investigation, said he believes the agents’ behavior was not unprecedented. “In my experience in law enforcement, these types of things do not just happen in one spot,” the attorney said.
Police in Lake Havasu City and Bullhead City – the Mohave County cities across the Colorado River from California and Nevada that were the focus of the sex-trafficking investigation – said they were told by HSI that its policy permitted undercover agents to engage in sex acts with suspects. It is illegal in Arizona, as in other states, for police to engage in sexual activity with subjects of an investigation.
A welcome sign proclaims Lake Havasu City as the home of the London Bridge, which was transported to western Arizona and reconstructed in 1968. Havasu was the backdrop of a sex-trafficking investigation that ultimately fell apart in December 2019. (Photo by James Paidoussis/Howard Center)
Bullhead City, across the Colorado River from Nevada, was the site of several coordinated police raids on massage parlors in September 2018. Charges against the key suspects ultimately were dismissed. (Photo by Mythili Gubbi/Howard Center)
A leaked online policy handbook, confirmed by retired HSI senior agent Louie Garcia, describes how, with supervisor approval, undercover agents can engage in “otherwise illegal” behavior. Although Garcia and another former HSI official said agents were not allowed to have sexual contact with subjects of their investigation, Garcia said he didn’t recall that prohibition in writing.
“In absence of a written policy, a lot can be left to chance,” said David Thomas, head of sexual misconduct training for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which for years has prodded law enforcement agencies to implement bans on officers having sex in the line of duty.
Over a nearly five-month period, the HSI undercover agents documented in graphic detail 17 sexual encounters with women working in eight massage parlors. Ultimately, two women were designated as victims, but their whereabouts are unknown. Two other women who were charged with prostitution were initially put in ICE detention, although only one still faces deportation hearings.
Of the nine suspects arrested, three accepted early plea deals before news of the HSI agents’ actions became publicly known.
Records reveal HSI officials in Arizona, as well as local prosecutors and a judge, knew the details of the undercover tactics and allowed the investigation to go forward.
Local HSI supervisory agents signed at least eight internal reports that documented sex acts during undercover visits to the massage parlors, HSI records show. HSI unit chiefs in Washington, D.C., typically receive daily briefings to monitor undercover activity, Garcia said. At least one Mohave County judge approved a search warrant whose probable cause affidavit listed the agents’ undercover sexual activity. And a prosecutor aware of the agents’ methods took the case to a grand jury.
None of the undercover agents was disciplined, and only a low-level supervisor in HSI’s Yuma office was disciplined, Garcia said he was told by people inside the agency.
“It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the law enforcement community collectively turns a blind eye when its members engage in misconduct,” said Clark Neily, vice president for criminal justice at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.
Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, a nationally recognized sex-trafficking researcher in Arizona, said the outcome sent a bad message to both victims and traffickers, adding, “We’ve done a disservice to the victims if we don’t do cases right.”
‘See something, say something’
It was a little after 1 p.m. on Sept. 20, 2018, when a group of six federal agents and local police detectives entered the lobby of a strip mall massage parlor in Lake Havasu City, a resort and watersports destination on the Colorado River.
“Police search warrant!” they yelled several times, getting no response.
The details of what happened next are included in more than 2,100 pages of police reports, photos and video, as well as HSI and court records obtained by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.
The door to the massage parlor’s back area was locked, so a detective kicked it in. In a room to his left, he found a naked man lying face down on a massage table, a used condom by his side. A television monitor in an upper corner of the room showed footage from multiple security cameras, which had alerted the woman who had been in the room to the officers’ presence.
After getting dressed, the man, 65, said it was his second visit in four months to Foot Massage & Spa. Both times, he said, he paid $60 to $80 for women working there to masturbate him.
Fanning out through the rest of the business, other investigators found the woman and a man she identified as her boyfriend huddled in a back office.
The woman, a 45-year-old Chinese national, told an HSI agent translating that she and her boyfriend had arrived in Havasu two days earlier. She said they lived in Utah, but that she often traveled to work in massage parlors, most recently in New Mexico, California and Utah.
At first, she denied performing sex acts at the spa. But when pressed, she admitted that she was masturbating the customer when police and agents arrived.
Lake Havasu City Police found large amounts of cash inside A Body Spa during a raid on Sept. 20, 2018. The raid was the culmination of a two-year multiagency sex-trafficking investigation that also netted more than $136,000 in seized assets, most of which was not returned after charges were dropped. (Photo by Lake Havasu Police Department)
In answer to questions designed to reveal trafficking victims, the woman said she was not forced to work at massage parlors and could come and go as she pleased. The day before, she said, she worked a seven-to-eight hour shift, spent two nights at an apartment and was planning to drive back to Utah the following day. She added that neither she nor her family were under threat.
Police took her to the H.A.V.E.N. Family Resource Center, a Havasu nonprofit that works with abuse victims, for further interviews to “see if she was a victim of human trafficking and forced labor.”
Details of those discussions weren’t made public, but police said they later were told the woman “does not fit the criteria as a victim who is being trafficked.”
In coordinated raids, a second woman was picked up at A Body Spa, another Havasu massage parlor. She, too, was brought to H.A.V.E.N. for questioning but, according to police reports, her responses were much different.
She said she had been brought to Havasu from the Las Vegas international airport in a white car she described as bearing the Mercedes Benz symbol. For the previous three weeks, she had worked at the massage parlor every day, on average 13 hours and sometimes longer. Most of the time, she did not leave the building during the day and slept on a massage table at night. When she could afford it, she rented a hotel room nearby to shower.
There were some inconsistencies in her story, though. She at first said her boss paid her by check but later that she was never paid and was owed about $1,000. She denied performing sex acts but later admitted to masturbating customers who asked because “she would not make any money” if she refused. She said her boss didn’t know what was happening, then later said she once told her boss about the sex acts and got no reaction.
This woman was deemed a trafficking victim, and H.A.V.E.N. arranged a hotel room for her for the night. The other woman was charged with prostitution and spent the night in the Lake Havasu City Jail.
Sex-trafficking experts say it’s difficult to determine who is and isn’t a victim because the women sometimes are too scared to be truthful, especially when they’re involved in police actions, such as massage parlor raids.
A 2017 report from the national human-trafficking think tank Polaris said traffickers generally rotate the women through a network of parlors every two to six weeks and control them through a combination of physical force, fraud or coercion, such as holding their passports and money, or seeding a fear of arrest and deportation.
A handwritten note found during a raid of Foot Massage & Spa on Sept. 20, 2018, indicates that a woman who worked there would be back soon. (Photo by Lake Havasu Police Department)
As the raids were underway in Havasu, Bullhead City police 65 miles to the north pulled over Amanda Yamauchi, allegedly for failing to signal a turn. The 47-year-old woman had been on the radar of local authorities for seven months on suspicion of prostitution, sex trafficking and perhaps money laundering.
As two officers approached her white Mercedes SUV, one spotted a young boy in the backseat and said, “Hey, buddy.” It was Yamauchi’s 5-year-old son.
Police ordered Yamauchi out of the car and led her around back to handcuff her. “I don’t want your kid to see what’s going on,” an officer said. “You’re under arrest for prostitution, it’s an ongoing investigation, and we’ll fill you in on that in a little bit.”
The sex-trafficking investigation had begun in May 2016 after police got multiple citizen complaints that massage parlors in Havasu actually were houses of prostitution.
Detectives said they linked Yamauchi to the massage parlors after receiving a tip in February 2018 from someone who used to work for her, who claimed her identity had been misused on a business license. They said Yamauchi was “knowingly operating” four massage parlors that were providing sex acts for money and was linked to the other four businesses.
Havasu and Bullhead City police called in Homeland Security Investigations in April 2018, suspecting that women were being cycled through the businesses and might be victims of human-trafficking, which is one of HSI’s investigative priorities.
Police said they witnessed Yamauchi, a month before her arrest, shuttling Asian women from the Las Vegas international airport to Havasu. She’d had other run-ins with the law, police said, citing a 2012 HSI report describing how Yamauchi was stopped en route to Las Vegas with $31,800 in cash. She told authorities the money was from the sale of her Florida massage business and that she planned to use it to buy a house in Nevada. Police said that wasn’t true and that her Florida parlor had been investigated for prostitution a few months before her cash was seized. They also cited records showing Yamauchi was arrested in California for prostitution in 2002.
“I’ve been watching what you’re doing, where you’re going, who you’re talking with and where you’re living,” Havasu police detective Lorne Jackson told Yamauchi during her interrogation. “I’ve done a whole lot of research and spent a whole lot of time because you wouldn’t be here unless that was true.”
Yamauchi, a U.S. citizen, told police repeatedly that she didn’t run a business at the massage parlors and only rented them out to independent contractors. When asked why her story didn’t match those of the women working at the parlors, Yamauchi said, “they try to get out of trouble” because “they do bad things.”
“I don’t lie. I swear to God. They lie,” Yamauchi pleaded.
The questioning then shifted to allegations that Yamauchi was involved in money laundering. Court records described five occasions on which she deposited and withdrew more than $10,000 at the Wynn Las Vegas casino and a credit union in Henderson, Nevada, in 2018.
“When you're throwing $23,000 down at the Wynn Las Vegas, and then you just pull $23,000 out like you're washing your money, that's called money laundering," Jackson said.
At that point, Yamauchi asked for an attorney.
Money found during execution of a search warrant on the home of Amanda Yamauchi in Bullhead City. She was accused of sex trafficking, operating a house of prostitution, money laundering and six other felony crimes, although all charges were later dropped. (Photo by Bullhead City Police Department)
At the Sept. 25, 2018, press conference announcing the investigation’s successful conclusion, police chiefs Dan Doyle of Lake Havasu City and Brian Williamson of Bullhead City appeared with Lon Weigand, the senior HSI official.
“This is a great example of see something, say something,” Doyle said.
Williamson summed up the importance to the two Arizona cities: “It went from a public nuisance, really, to people being rescued from forced servitude, which then has a federal nexus for our homeland security.”
“These are not problems to be ignored,” he continued, “and I think I can speak for all of the law enforcement officials today when I say we will not ignore these issues.”
‘Operation Asian Touch’
Mike Wozniak pressed play on one of the dozens of hours of HSI undercover audio recordings from an investigation agents had dubbed Operation Asian Touch. The veteran defense attorney, who specializes in criminal and family law, said he had heard such recordings before.
“I distinctly recall sitting in my office. It was late in the day,” said Wozniak, who briefly represented one of the alleged traffickers charged in the investigation. He said he “heard what I would have expected to hear, which is a conversation about services in exchange for money.”
But then he heard something else.
“They talked about a handjob, and I believe I was hearing one take place,” Wozniak said. “In every other case I’ve ever had, the undercover officer did not go through with the actual sexual act.”
Incredulous, Wozniak said he called the lead prosecutor, who confirmed “what I believed I was hearing.”
“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.
During the investigation, two undercover agents, identified in court records only as “Sergio” and “Arturo,” visited eight massage parlors in Havasu and Bullhead City “and paid the women for sex acts,” according to Mohave County Superior Court and HSI records.
The federal agents visited the massage parlors on 18 occasions, and on 17 visits paid for and engaged in sexual activity, agency and police records showed. Atop each official HSI report signed by supervisors, the agents noted that “the females may be victims of human trafficking.”
One HSI report from May 30, 2018, for example, detailed the agent’s sexual interactions while undercover.
In a dimly lit massage room around 8 p.m., a naked HSI agent covered in massage oil negotiated the price of oral sex with a female worker identified only as “Angel.”
The undercover agent said “he was referred by a friend and that the friend stated she was going to take care of him.” The undercover agent heard that the woman had given his friend oral sex.
From there the negotiations began.
An HSI undercover agent’s visit to a massage parlor in Bullhead City on May 30, 2018, is described in detail in an internal agency report. The narrative describes one of 17 sexual acts HSI undercover agents paid for and engaged in during their “Operation Asian Touch.” (Source: HSI investigative reports obtained by the Howard Center)
The woman said a handjob would cost $60. “How much for oral copulation?” the agent said he asked.
She replied: $120 for oral sex. The agent said he didn’t have enough money, so the woman lowered her price to $100. The agent then “asked her to take off her clothes.” The woman countered again with a price of $120 for oral sex and nudity, and the deal was set.
The woman put a condom on the agent and “attempted to perform oral sex,” the agent reported. He stopped her immediately, he said, pulled off the condom and told her to masturbate him instead.
“The female then placed oil on her hands,” the HSI report said, adding, “After a few minutes, the female stopped and gave the UC a wet towel to clean himself.”
He and the woman later exchanged phone numbers. She told the agent to call her directly next time, “since the owner moves the girls to different ‘shops’ all the time.”
Rideout, who initially represented Yamauchi and later another suspect in the case, said he was shocked when he first read the HSI reports.
“It was absolutely, morally problematic,” he told the Howard Center. “It takes a special officer to be on undercover stuff. It takes an even more special officer to break the law, (to) be willing to have a moral flexibility to have sex with the person you identified as a victim.”
In September 2019, Rideout filed a court motion seeking the names and badge numbers of the HSI undercover agents. Noting they were part of an agency created to protect the nation from terrorist attacks, he said, “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 the borders.”
Rideout argued the agents should be called to testify, and other defense attorneys agreed.
One of the Mohave County prosecutors assigned to the case, Kellen Marlow, argued against releasing the agents’ identities, saying that exceeded the scope of evidence the state was obligated to disclose. He also said his office had asked HSI for help in the prosecution, but added, “There will be no cooperation from federal partners in prosecuting the crimes they helped investigate.”
By December, all pending felony charges were dismissed. Just before the holidays, a local newspaper, Today’s News-Herald, reported what happened, along with select, leaked HSI records.
“Having sex with people they identify as victims is a crime in itself,” Rideout said, “and they’re not going to come on the stand and testify.”
Josephine Hallam, who later took over Yamauchi’s representation, asked, “How is that possible, ethically, as an attorney that you’re prosecuting a case where there’s such horrendous, unethical, illegal behavior by the officers investigating it?”
Ultimately, of the nine people charged, only three pleaded guilty: one to felony attempted pandering, one to misdemeanor prostitution, and one to misdemeanor solicitation.
Roe-Sepowitz, who serves on the Arizona Human Trafficking Council, called the case a “terrible demonstration of our behavior as a country.”
“Their job is to collect evidence and testify about it in court,” she said, referring to HSI agents. “They don’t actually have any other function. Their whole job was to testify and close that case. They are not fulfilling their duties.”
‘Otherwise illegal activity’
Havasu and Bullhead City police said they were told by HSI that the agents’ actions were within agency guidelines.
“Detectives were informed by HSI that the undercover sexual activity was authorized,” Emily Fromelt, a spokeswoman for the Bullhead City Police Department, said in an email.
Havasu police Sgt. Tom Gray said, “Our understanding of HSI policy is their investigators are allowed to participate in sex acts while working undercover.”
Both police departments said they have strict policies forbidding their officers from sexual activity with subjects of their investigations, and Arizona is among the states that have laws making such behavior illegal.
“Nobody should be able to engage in criminal activity,” said David Thomas, who has led sexual misconduct training for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “It flies in the face of that oath that an officer, an investigator stands there and raises their right hand and swears to.”
Nonetheless, an ICE Undercover Operations Handbook from 2008 lays out “possible justifications for otherwise illegal activity.” The handbook was posted online in 2018 by Unicorn Riot, which describes itself as a nonprofit media organization of artists and journalists. It does not say how it obtained the document.
Garcia, the former HSI deputy special agent in charge who retired in 2017, pointed Howard Center reporters to the online handbook.
“That appears to be a copy of our manual,” he said. An ICE spokeswoman said she could not comment on a document not released by her agency.
Garcia said the handbook could have been updated since 2008, and he noted there were other policy manuals for specific investigations, such as sex- or human-trafficking. But, he added, “I don't recall the policy manuals saying you can't have sex with human-trafficking victims. I just know that's something we are not allowed to do.”
The existence of such a handbook was confirmed in 2017 when the Department of Homeland Security released its “HSI Special Agent Manual Index” in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
An excerpt from an online handbook identified as ICE’s Undercover Operations Handbook, which lays out for undercover agents “possible justifications for otherwise illegal activity.” (Photo courtesy of Unicorn Riot 2018)
The 2008 handbook was posted online in 2018 by the nonprofit media-arts collective Unicorn Riot and verified for the Howard Center by a former HSI deputy special agent in charge. (Photo courtesy of Unicorn Riot 2018)
The posted handbook broadly covers what undercover agents can and can’t do. One section, for example, explicitly prohibits them from participating “in conduct that would normally constitute unlawful investigative techniques,” such as wiretapping or trespassing.
But with the approval of their special agent in charge, and under certain conditions, agents may engage in “otherwise illegal activities,” the handbook says.
A chapter on “legal/liability issues” lists possible justifications, including when it’s necessary to “obtain information or evidence necessary to the success of an investigation not reasonably available without participation in the otherwise illegal activity,” or to “establish or maintain credibility of a cover identity where that credibility is required for the investigative and/or operational activity and/or the safety of the undercover agent.”
Although it listed examples of possibly permissible illegal activities, including purchasing contraband goods, paying bribes or delivering drugs, there was no mention of agents participating in sex acts during an investigation.
Traci Lembke, who was HSI’s assistant director from 2013 to 2015, said engaging in sexual acts with subjects of an investigation was strictly forbidden during her time at the agency.
“It would be unethical, immoral and illegal for a sworn law enforcement officer to sexually violate anyone while acting in an official capacity,” she wrote in an email.
“If having sexual relations was something that HSI approved their Undercover Agents to do their ENTIRE program would be shut down by the Department of Justice, immediately. It would demonstrate poor oversight and judgment by the Agency.”
Garcia said agents are “trained and told you can’t do that,” adding, it’s “one of the first things you learn.”
Police policy and academic experts agree that training is key to successful investigations that ensure victims are kept safe, policy is properly followed and permissible undercover activity is clear.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police, the world’s largest police organization, provides training courses and materials for federally funded human-trafficking task forces. Those task forces can include HSI and other federal agents, as well as local law enforcement, said Sabrina Fernandez, the organization’s human-trafficking program manager.
The training emphasizes awareness of the trauma that trafficked victims face. The agents’ actions in the Arizona case are “definitely out of line with what we’re teaching,” Fernandez said.
HSI agents also are trained through the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers. Roe-Sepowitz, whose group regularly works with HSI agents, said they receive “a little introduction” on sex-trafficking investigations, but “it’s different than what we see in other agencies that are more specific to serving” the public.
According to HSI’s Blue Campaign, which is meant to increase awareness of human trafficking, agents are supposed to take a victim-centered approach to their investigations and ensure victims feel “stable, safe and secure.”
But no amount of training can replace the need for written guidelines that make it clear certain investigatory tactics are forbidden, said Samuel Walker, a police policy expert from the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Without that, he said, agents are not properly trained on what they can’t do and they may be given misleading information.
“There's this idea of an unwritten code,” Walker said. “And what's going on here is a failure of the agency, or agencies plural, to have written standards on all of these kinds of crucial actions.”
Rideout, whose court motion publicly revealed the agents’ undercover actions in Havasu and Bullhead City, said he sought HSI policy documents to determine whether there was a “pattern” of behavior and “if they had done it other places.” He never got those questions answered in court.
Few states have grappled with problems in sex-trafficking investigations as publicly as Hawaii.
In 2014, amid allegations that police were having sex with prostitutes as part of their investigations, lawmakers banned on-duty police officers from engaging in “sexual conduct,” defined to include contact or penetration.
A year later, a sex-trafficking investigation involving Honolulu police and HSI fell apart after the city’s chief prosecutor refused to pursue sex assault charges against the women police arrested. In at least one instance, a defense lawyer said, an undercover officer stripped naked and made the woman touch his genitals. HSI’s exact role in the investigation was unclear, but a senior HSI agent in Hawaii was among five officials who signed a public letter in which law enforcement defended their operations.
Even absent allegations of sexual contact between agents and victims, HSI conduct has proved troublesome for prosecutors. In 2018, federal charges against an alleged sex trafficker in Hawaii had to be dropped after prosecutors acknowledged an HSI agent gave “inconsistent” information under oath about his destroyed work phone containing text messages with an alleged victim. The content of the messages was unclear.
It can be difficult to bring misconduct charges against HSI agents, as some of the experts consulted by the Howard Center suggested should have been the outcome in the Mohave County case.
Successfully prosecuting a federal officer for violating state law requires evidence available only from internal federal documents, information that’s often difficult to obtain. And prosecuting an agent under federal law requires proof that the sex was nonconsensual.
In addition, federal agents have qualified immunity from lawsuits by private individuals unless it can be proved that agents acted outside the scope of their official duties by violating “clearly established” law.
Clark Neily, the Cato Institute criminal justice expert, cautioned against thinking that even “a good-faith reading of the law” is the only obstacle to holding federal agents accountable for alleged misconduct.
“The law is not entirely clear in this area, and as a matter of informal institutional culture the default setting among members of law enforcement is to let other members of law enforcement get away with just about anything," Neily said in an email.
That culture, he said, is “far more relevant here than a close reading of the law and the underlying facts, including the policies outlined in the … handbook.”
‘Exploiting the exploited’
Louie Garcia, the former HSI supervisory agent, said he could barely believe it when he heard about the HSI agents’ behavior in the Mohave County operation, which he called unconscionable.
“These girls were victimized again by the agency who was supposed to be protecting them.” Garcia said. “That’s what bothers me.”
Garcia was one of more than 40 police policy experts, sex-trafficking researchers, law enforcement professionals and attorneys consulted by the Howard Center to understand the implications of what happened in the Arizona undercover investigation. All agreed that the undercover HSI agents crossed the line of ethical behavior for law enforcement, and some, including Garcia, thought they should have been prosecuted.
Garcia said he was told that senior agency officials in Washington “wanted heads to roll,” but the issue just quietly went away.
“I don’t know what caused them to change their position,” he said.
In the end, only one frontline supervisor was disciplined for the agents’ actions, according to Garcia. In addition, a complaint was filed with ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which conducts internal investigations of misconduct allegations.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said an assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix received a “brief” call from an Office of Professional Responsibility investigator to ask whether the HSI agents violated any federal law.
“No such federal violation was apparent from the information provided,” Esther Winne said in an emailed response to questions.
HSI did not provide further information about its internal investigation or administrative actions, although Winne noted the office had heard “sanctions” were issued.
A spokesman for the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, which has congressional oversight of the department, said it was not aware of the case.
As part of the sex-trafficking case, local police seized more than $136,000 in cash and assets, including cars, passports and numerous technology devices. The bulk of that, $105,120, was not returned even after the case fell apart. Instead, the assets became property of the police departments through civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow law enforcement to keep the proceeds of suspected illegal activity.
Yamauchi, the main target of the investigation, lost her 2005 Mercedes SUV and thousands of dollars in cash. She also lost custody of her young son, two dogs and a phone containing her son’s baby photos, according to her attorney.
“They took everything she owns under forfeiture,” Hallam said. “They didn’t get a conviction, but they destroyed her anyway.”
In addition to the financial losses, victim advocates say HSI’s investigative tactics revictimized the women they claimed to have rescued.
“Every time somebody comes and invades their body, it adds up,” said Mary Anne Layden, a sexual trauma expert at the University of Pennsylvania. “And if the person was somebody you should’ve been able to trust ... it’s even worse.”
Roe-Sepowitz, who also directs Arizona State University’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, said the case “just deepens the belief that law enforcement are not helpers” – a message traffickers repeat to keep their victims quiet.
“It’s such an insult to the victims of the work that we do to exploit them one more time,” she said, adding, “we don’t want to work in communities where law enforcement are exploiting the exploited.”
Sex acts and audiotapes:
How the case unraveled By Molly Duerig
The case fell apart, the attorney said, because agents were committing crimes as they went undercover to investigate alleged sex trafficking in massage parlors along Arizona’s western border.
‘It went through an approval process’ By James Paidoussis
The federal agency’s own documents detailed more than a dozen times when agents engaged in sex acts with women they thought might be trafficking victims.
The cost of justice By Beno Thomas
Some of the forfeiture proceeds from the joint investigation known as “Operation Asian Touch” ultimately flowed back into the budgets of the Arizona police departments that were involved, even though most charges eventually were dismissed. According to the Institute of Justice, 93% of Mohave County’s forfeiture cases had no related convictions in 2018. Under current civil forfeiture laws, law enforcement can seize assets solely on suspicion the assets are connected to criminal activity. It is difficult for suspects to win back their assets in court. From 2000 to 2014, Arizona law enforcement agencies collectively received an average of $27 million a year in forfeiture revenue. (Graphic by Troy Tauscher/Cronkite News)