Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Homeland Security targeted five Wilmington massage parlors with ‘corrupt agent’ tactic

Owners and associates of Wilmington massage parlors were targeted in an undercover operation that involved deception by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and help from New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Google Maps)

WILMINGTON—The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) infiltrated a network of women involved in running allegedly illegal Wilmington massage parlors, by posing an undercover agent as a corrupt version of himself, and convincing the women to pay him for “protection” from police scrutiny. 

The investigation began in August 2020 and federal law enforcement made six arrests last week, according to court documents. Five of the parlors mentioned are in Wilmington, while others were in Cary and Durham. 

The massage parlor operators told the undercover agent their enterprises offered “happy endings” to customers upon request, according to the affidavit of a DHS special agent. The undercover agent inserted himself into their business circle, proposed them a business plan for expansion, and collected at least $33,000 in protection payments ostensibly to keep the local police at bay. 

Three Wilmington parlor operators and others have been charged with conspiracy, bribery, and operating a prostitution enterprise in interstate commerce as part of one case. 

In another case that appears to involve the same set of DHS characters, a different Wilmington parlor owner faces similar charges. The six women thought the undercover agent was a potential business partner and their corrupt-cop protector. He showed them his real-life badge and gun to convince them he was really a law enforcement officer.

The Supreme Court has upheld the government’s right to use deception on American citizens in an effort to incite them to commit crimes. The line between such practice and entrapment is the use of overly outrageous tactics “shocking to the universal sense of justice.” But the law allows agents to induce citizens into committing illegal actions in a variety of deceptive ways. A 2014 Washington University Law Review article calls it rare for the government to make use of the “corrupt agent” tactic. 

Court documents show DHS made initial inroads into the massage parlor community through the use of an unnamed person, referred to in affidavits only as “a source of information.” In two different cases, an anonymous source brokered a meeting between a parlor owner and the undercover agent, who proposed the bribery scheme. The undercover agent accepted payments from the targets for more than six months, until April and May of 2021. 

An early meeting with the lone defendant Xiang due Jin happened at a Starbucks in Cary, according to court documents. “I’ll protect you — you protect me,” the undercover DHS agent allegedly told Jin, as she slid him $2,000 dollars wrapped in a white napkin during the coffee shop meeting.

On Apr. 15, after the operation had been ongoing for months, the undercover agent met again with Jin at the Cary Starbucks. The agent relayed he was interested in “opening a massage spa together,” and “he had a friend who was willing to put his name on the lease.” While discussing the prospect, the agent specifically probed Jin “about getting young girls to work at the massage spa.”

“Jin informed the [undercover agent] that she didn’t want ‘young or beautiful girls’ but wanted women thirty-five to forty-five years old,” according to court documents. A DHS special agent, Glenn Covington, who composed affidavits for complaints in both cases, stated his involvement in over 400 child exploitation and sex trafficking cases. (Covington and the undercover agent are implied to be different people.)

At the massage parlors in Wilmington and elsewhere, court filings make no mention of minors being involved in these cases. Rather, each institution allegedly provided “happy endings” to male clients, putting the operators in the crosshairs of federal law enforcement agencies.

“The [undercover agent] also asked if the girls did crazy things and Jin replied ‘no,’ then used her hand to gesture manual stimulation and then said, ‘only hand jobs and happy rubs and endings,’” according to court documents. 

Jin told the agent “she would call somebody to get girls to come to North Carolina to work in her store,” specifically saying, “N.Y. girl — Asian girl — 80% working for spa.”

One defendant in the other case, Ok Hwa Lee, told an undercover agent at a meeting — also hosted at a Cary Starbucks — she placed advertisements in Korean and Chinese newspapers in the U.S. seeking female masseuses. “Lee said that most of the girls come from New York and other cities,” according to court documents. 

Lee is pegged as the organizer of a criminal group. She introduced the agent to friends of hers and business associates after beginning “bribe” payments in August. Five women were eventually arrested in that case. Lee payed $1,600 per month for “protection” at four locations, while Jin paid $2,000 for protection at two. Lee operated two Wilmington parlors, and her friend Ming Ji Cao, who also came to know the undercover agent, operated two as well.

New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office surveilled Jin’s Wrightsville Avenue parlor last month. Deputies initiated traffic stops on clients seen leaving the business; they interviewed three men, all of whom allegedly received the illicit “happy ending” service, and served them grand jury subpoenas.

In the other case involving Lee and her friends, NHCSO surveilled four different Wilmington parlors. Deputies interviewed 14 customers, and handed out 13 grand jury subpoenas among those. (One customer who supplied investigators with voluminous statements on the parlor’s alleged criminal activity had previous convictions for conspiracy and transporting stolen goods. Covington, the DHS special agent who wrote the affidavit, corroborated this customer’s claims, according to court documents.)

Asked how many of the Wilmington men who admitted to soliciting prostitution at these establishments were charged as part of this case, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice wrote: “That is not public information at this time,” in a Wednesday morning email to Port City Daily. A DOJ press release mentions that Wilmington police assisted federal investigators; no mention of the department was evident in an initial review of the publicly available court documents. 

The attorney for one defendant recently filed a motion for discovery, asking the government to disclose the names and background of any informants, operatives and other human resources used by the investigators, and names of other alleged co-conspirators that became known during the operation. 

The four local massage parlor locations associated with the cases against Lee and her associates are: VIP Spa and King Spa, Market Street; Comfort Asian Massage, S. College Road; Yucca Treatment Spa, Shipyard Boulevard.

Jin’s massage parlor in Wilmington, according to court filings, was Lucky Foot & Body Massage on Wrightsville Avenue. Jin was arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service in Queens, N.Y. last week and will be tried in N.C. A review of local Sheriff’s Office resources indicates the defendants are not being held in New Hanover County.

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