ICE: Havasu sex trafficking bust started with citizen complaints
When Amanda Yamauchi applied to lease a space for her spa on Acoma Boulevard, property owner Terry Burgess was excited with the prospect.
“She came across sweet as pie,” Burgess said. “She brought an old lady with her. After she signed the lease, I came home and told my wife that we were getting an Asian spa in our building … hair and nails, facials and massages … I was excited at the time.”
About 18 months later, Yamauchi, 46, was one of seven people arrested in an alleged sex-trafficking ring that spanned seven massage parlors throughout Lake Havasu City and Bullhead City.
Burgess wasn’t the only property owner suspected to have been deceived by Yamauchi and her alleged accomplices, however. When a similar woman applied to lease property owned by State Rep. Paul Mosley, she brought a child with her.
“I didn’t know anything about her, or anything about what happened in her massage parlor,” Mosley said on Tuesday. “All I know is she paid the rent. Her one-year lease is up on Oct. 15.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday released additional details in the search of seven Mohave County massage parlors and the arrest of seven suspects on charges including human trafficking and prostitution. As a result of the arrests, two women, identified by police only as Chinese nationals, were saved from forced prostitution.
According to Emily Fromelt, a public information officer for the Bullhead City Police Department, Yamauchi and Bullhead City resident Dean M. Bassett, 52, were the central suspects of Havasu, Bullhead and Homeland Security’s joint investigation.
The Department of Homeland Security began its collaboration with the Bullhead and Lake Havasu City Police Departments this April, after receiving information, complaints and tips about possible human trafficking.
According to Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Lon Weigand, further examination of the businesses revealed that only Asian women were employed at each of the suspected businesses. Agents suspected the use of forced labor, including the exchange of sexual favors for money, and initiated a joint investigation.
“Seven massage parlors offered sexual acts in exchange for money to undercover agents,” Weigand said.
Forced into prostitution
According to Weigand, prostitution was the end result of a scheme by what he referred to as “trans-national criminal organizations.” Such organizations transport women from foreign nations to the U.S., enacting a debt for which the victims are coerced into prostitution, he said. Weigand says it’s a debt that victims can never pay in full.
“Each business had only one or two Asian females working at a time,” Weigand said. “They were instructed to live and work in the businesses, and their movements were extremely restricted. They worked from when the shops opened until they closed, seven days per week, and often more than 12 hours per day. The conditions in which they lived were deplorable, with low lighting, filth and unsanitary conditions.”
Victims in the alleged human trafficking ring were moved to different locations about once per week, but they were never told in advance where they would be going, Weigand said. Their only source of income came in the form of tips received while performing massage or sexual favors.
“These women were only allowed to go from their hotel rooms to the businesses and back,” Weigand said. “The female boss and her husband would come by at various times to pick up the money.”
“You kind of knew what was going on, but you can’t point a finger without evidence,” said one Scott Drive business representative. His workplace was within a block of one of the suspected massage parlors in last week’s operation. He declined to identify himself to Today’s News-Herald on Tuesday, citing fears of retaliation.
“Different Asian women were coming and going, numerous people were coming in … a number of people would park in our parking lot. They had license plates from Texas, Oregon, California, Montana … everywhere. They’d go over for about a half-hour or an hour, then leave. In the back of your mind, you knew something was going on.”
Debbie Zueger, the director of Havasu’s Pregnancy Care center, became suspicious of another of the suspected parlors, Foot and Massage Spa, on 1960 Mesquite Avenue. The business was located next door to Zueger’s workplace.
“I started to become suspicious because of things acquaintances of mine told me,” Zueger said. “I saw many girls in and out of there since the place opened. It was originally opened by a guy who wanted to run the place as a foot massage business … but then we saw them bringing in different women and bedding … it was strange. We knew there was something suspicious happening.”
Terry Burgess, who leased his property to Yamauchi for her Asian Body Spa on West Acoma Boulevard, said he never noticed anything suspicious. But when his other tenants began to complain, he approached the Lake Havasu City Police Department with their concerns.
“I received complaints that the ladies who were working there seemed to be living there,” Burgess said. “That was against their lease. But they produced receipts to show their employees were living in the motel next door. None of them spoke very good English, but they seemed on the up-and-up.”
Burgess is now concerned for how Yamauchi’s business may reflect on his other tenants.
“I try to keep harmony in the place,” Burgess said. “I have to respond to tenant complaints. I don’t want there to be a negative reflection on the other tenants I lease to … they’re good businesses. I try to run a good building … this is far from ordinary.”
Last week’s arrests came with a series of 10 search warrants that were served throughout Havasu and Bullhead. In Havasu, officers raided three businesses and one residential address at the 2000 block of North Smoketree Avenue. In Bullhead City, officers raided five businesses and one residence. During the raids, alleged customer Dennis R. Weber, 65, was arrested on charges of solicitation of prostitution. Stephen C. Hansen, 41, was arrested on felony charges of pandering.
According to Weigand, law enforcement officials seized about $128,000 during the raids, as well as $30,000 in gold coins and jewelry. Yamauchi was charged with money laundering, prostitution, sex trafficking, trafficking of persons for forced labor, unlawfully obtaining labor of services, procuring or placing persons in a house of prostitutions, benefitting from a sex trafficking venture and receiving earnings of a prostitute.
Bassett was arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, trafficking persons for forced labor or services, money laundering, unlawfully obtaining labor or service, procuring or placing persons in a house of prostitution and operating a house of prostitution.
Suspects Feng Feng Chen, 45, Quan Xiang Ma, 55 were each arrested on charges of prostitution.
According to Fromelt, charges are pending against suspect Yuqin Shu, 56, to include money laundering, trafficking persons for forced labor, unlawfully obtaining labor, sex trafficking, procuring or placing persons in a house of prostitution, operating a house of prostitution and prostitution. She was located at #1 Foot Massage in Bullhead City, but was not arrested at the scene because her children were with her, Fromelt said.
A collaborative effort
Lake Havasu City Police Chief Dan Doyle said the operation started with a tip from local citizens about suspicious activity.
“This was a great example of ‘see something, say something,’” he said at Tuesday’s news conference. Doyle extended his gratitude to the Lake Havasu City Police Department’s special investigations unit, including Lt. Joe Harrold, Sgt. Jake Bekkedahl, and detectives Ryan Huerta, Lorne Jackson and Kyle Ridgeway. He also thanked the assistance of Bullhead City Police Chief Brian Williamson, the Mohave County Attorney’s Office, Homeland Security Investigations and the Yuma branch of DHS; as well as the Havasu Abuse Victims Education Network for their support of victims in the case.
“For many years now the Lake Havasu City Police Department has aggressively pursued human trafficking, prostitution and those that are facilitating prostitution and human trafficking,” Doyle said. “We will continue to pursue it: The people who are in it, the johns that are paying and anybody that is involved. We have been surveilling these locations since May. We know who’s coming, who’s going, and we still have more follow-up to do in this investigation.”
Williams called the arrests a great example of what ordinary citizens can do in their own communities.
“This case went from a public nuisance to people being rescued from forced servitude,” he said. “These are not problems to be ignored, and we will not ignore these issues.”
According to Lake Havasu City Police Sgt. Tom Gray, State Rep. Paul Mosley is not a person of interest in the case.
Of the victims, Weigand said only that they were safe and secure. Their identities will not be released to the public, he said.