Details emerge in failed Mohave County sex trafficking case
Details are emerging in a two-year federal sex-trafficking investigation that started to unravel last week. Unredacted reports obtained by Today’s News-Herald revealed that Homeland Security agents participated in sex acts at massage parlors in Lake Havasu City and Bullhead City while they investigated an alleged sex trafficking network.
According to the reports, provided to the News-Herald by a person with access to the documents who asked not to be identified, the agents used marked bills to pay for sex acts offered by women at each establishment, with stated services ranging from $60 to $160. The agents received sexual services from women at each location, the report said, but never to completion. The agents’ undercover operations extended to three massage parlors throughout Havasu and five more businesses throughout Bullhead City from May through September 2018, as investigators built their case. Ultimately, the investigation led to the arrests of seven people that September.
Last week, however, charges against two of the suspects were dismissed because those federal agents have been unavailable to testify in Mohave Superior Court.
It’s not clear why the agents are refusing to testify, and the Department of Homeland Security has not answered questions sent this week from the News-Herald about the case. However, Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, a public affairs officer for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, offered a prepared statement: “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation. However, lack of comment should not be construed as an agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations. Our trained law enforcement professionals adhere to the Department’s mission and uphold our laws while continuing to provide our nation with safety and security.”
Lake Havasu City attorney Brad Rideout, representing one of the women arrested in the case, filed suit in Mohave County Superior Court on Sept. 30 seeking more information from the Department of Homeland Security.
“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 wrote in his court filing.
The suit is seeking disclosure of the full names of the agents and all reports they prepared during the investigation.
According to Lake Havasu City Police and Mohave County prosecutors, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has communicated little with local law enforcement since the end of the investigation. According to Mohave County Deputy Attorney Kellen Marlow, DHS officials have said only that agents identified only as “Sergio” and “Arturo” will not be available to give testimony in the foreseeable future.
All charges against Amanda Yamauchi and Dean Bassett were dismissed last week, and more felony cases against alleged participants in the suspected human trafficking ring could be dismissed soon, county attorneys say.
Yamauchi, 47, a former Bullhead resident, allegedly owned four of the businesses involved, with utilities for each registered to Bassett, 53.
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 prostitution, benefiting from a sex trafficking venture and receiving the 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 services, procuring or placing persons in a house of prostitution and operating a house of prostitution.
Also arrested was former Havasu business owner Shui Mei Ching, 53, of Las Vegas, who was charged with counts of maintaining a house of prostitution and receiving the earnings of a prostitute.
Yuqin Shu, 56, owned another of the businesses allegedly involved in Bullhead City. She is awaiting trial on charges of money laundering in the case.
“Their cases could end very similarly to those of Yamauchi and Bassett,” Marlow said Thursday.
‘HSI took the lead’
According to statements by Lake Havasu City Chief of Police Dan Doyle, undercover officers of Homeland Security Investigations took the lead in the case, and provided Havasu and Bullhead City investigators with reports of their progress.
“Our understanding of (Homeland Security) policy is that their investigators are allowed to participate in sex acts while working undercover,” Doyle said.
Homeland Security agents followed Homeland Security procedures, Doyle said, which differed greatly from Havasu’s own.
“The Lake Havasu City Police Department does not allow its officers to participate in any sex act while on duty or in the course of an undercover operation,” Doyle said. “We have strict policies governing officer conduct on and off duty as well as during investigations. When we begin these types of operations we typically consult our prosecutors in addition to our internal conduct policies. We also follow any additional guidelines and recommendations by the prosecutor.”
According to Doyle and Bullhead City Public Information Officer Emily Fromelt, the Department of Homeland Security later conducted its own internal investigation into the agents’ activities, in which both police departments participated. The outcome of that investigation was unknown as of Thursday evening.
According to police, the suspected human trafficking ring transported women between each of the businesses allegedly involved, and were occasionally cautious of investigators. According to federal investigators’ reports, business owners at several of the locations may also have performing acts of prostitution.
Officers’ investigation ended Sept. 20, 2018, when Lake Havasu City Police 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.
Law enforcement officials seized about $128,000 in cash during the raids, according to federal authorities, as well as $30,000 in gold coins and jewelry. Police announced the arrest of six suspects in the case, and another suspect was charged several days later.
The victims in the case were taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security. As of last year, they were described by authorities only as being “safe and secure.”
According to investigators, the Asian women were forced to live and work at an alleged network of seven massage parlors in Lake Havasu and Bullhead cities.