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Trafficking experts say Flagstaff PD missed 'red flags' in massage operation

Posted at 9:50 PM, Aug 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-23 01:24:46-04

FLAGSTAFF, AZ  — Human trafficking experts and victims' advocates are questioning Flagstaff police after two undercover officers went into a massage parlor to engage in sex acts, if they thought the female employees inside may be victims of human trafficking.

Since ABC15's initial report in July:

- Flagstaff’s Police Chief, Dan Mussleman, has been put on administrative leave.

- The City Manager hired an outside investigator to review the operation.

- The state’s police oversight board received a complaint.

- And the Mayor called for “transparency”.

*Editors note: This story talks about a mature subject matter and may not be suitable for all audiences.*

2 officers, 13 massages, 12 different female employees

Over the course of two days in July 2019, Flagstaff Police Officer Dustin Eberhardt went into eight massage parlors.

In each business, the city employee got completely naked, rolled over, and allowed himself to be sexually touched.

Months later, his co-worker, Officer Colton Hutchison went back into five of the same parlors to “see if we could do the same thing with a debit card.”

Hutchinson later wrote in a report that he was ‘touched in a sexual manner’ by four different female employees than Eberhardt was.

Hutchinson wrote he was also ‘touched in a sexual manner.’ When he later compared notes and looked at employee photos with Eberhardt, Hutchinson realized he had been fondled by four different female employees.

Multiple attorneys have told ABC15, what the officers did was illegal under state law.

In Arizona, you cannot exchange money for sex acts while on duty. It is a crime,” said Brad Rideout, an Arizona defense attorney and former prosecutor, who has handled hundreds of prostitution cases in his career.

Despite the graphic sexual descriptions in the police records, the City of Flagstaff said in a statement that the officers “did not participate in any sexual acts” and stated their actions were not illegal.

“...at the parlor against their will.”

According to one Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) report, the stated purpose of the operation was to investigate “human trafficking, sex trafficking, and prostitution.”

Throughout Flagstaff reports, the METRO unit officers mention ‘human trafficking’ as a catalyst for the months-long operation.

After the officers went undercover and gathered the ‘evidence’ for the case, the Coconino County Attorney’s Office got a grand jury to indict 15 people.

When officers went to serve the arrest warrants, they flew in interpreters and brought along two ‘victims advocates for human trafficking.’

One sergeant wrote, “there would be a good likelihood that we’d encounter someone who was at the parlor against their will.”

Trafficking experts question the motive of the investigation though, and if victims' advocates were consulted early on in any meaningful way.

“I think it has to be just lip service,” said Jenna Panas, CEO of Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. “Perhaps prostitution was really the impetus here, as opposed to recognizing that sex trafficking and exploitation was the real problem.”

“Red flags for trafficking”

ABC15 requested all of the video associated with the case.

Despite serving eight search warrants, Flagstaff officials provided just one video of officers searching a massage parlor and speaking to the women inside. When pressed, a city liaison for public records said ‘not all the officers present had body cameras.’

“Well here's the living quarters,” said one officer, whose identity is concealed.

“Smells like urine,” replied another.

Just a few walls separate the makeshift bedroom from the areas where police allege the women performed sex acts and were constantly monitored by surveillance cameras.

“These ones are still recording in here,” said one officer, referencing the cameras he discovered in a back room.

In one report, a Flagstaff sergeant wrote that the surveillance cameras in the business indicated “‘the boss is watching and listening to a live feed.”

“They want to know what is happening in their store,” said one officer, during a parlor search.

The two female employees living in another Flagstaff parlor told police ‘the boss’ was living in LA, they did not know him, but he didn’t ‘like when they took cash.’

Officers also determined the female employees from China moved across the states often.

“Sounds like they bounce around from location to location,” said one officer.

“Those two - they got new luggage and stuff,” commented another.

“Yup, they said that we’re in LA and Georgia. They just responded to an ad,” the initial officer replied.

Experts on human and sex trafficking reviewed some of the reports and body camera footage and told ABC15 the officers appear to have missed multiple ‘red flags.’

They also question why the Flagstaff officers would have gone through with the sex acts, if they suspected the women giving the massages were potential victims.

Stacey Sutherland is a program director at the Arizona Anti-Trafficking Network.

“There were some red flags for trafficking,” said Stacey Sutherland, a program director at the Arizona Anti-Trafficking Network.

“We look for things like power and control, and other signs of victimization, like if they're living in the massage parlor and not allowed to come and go as they please. They're giving all the money that they are making to somebody. So those are definitely some concerns and could be indicators of trafficking.”

“It is a very large red flag,” echoed Panas. “So, the fact that they are living within the workplace, [and] there are cameras, which indicate an inability to leave, and then frequent movement - women aren’t able to set up permanently in a city – all of these are giant indicators of human trafficking [and] exploitation.”

“Even if they can leave…”

During the search of one business, an officer chuckles while talking about the potentially trafficked employees’, “urine-smelling” living situation.

“Honestly, I'm kind of like, yeah, you live here, but it's so expensive, where else are you gonna live?” said one officer. “Even if they can leave, I might choose to live here.”

This is a clear case where the victims here were not met with the kind of advocacy and the care and empathy they needed,” said Panas.

At a different parlor, one worker told a sergeant she “can’t leave unless her boss tells her she can leave.”

A victim’s advocate was quickly called to the location - but the sergeant later wrote in his report that the employee later made “conflicting statements.”

We know our victims are not going to ask for resources on a first time contact,” said Sutherland.

“These responders took that at face value, rather than digging further,” said Panas.

Cases dismissed and no comments

Most of the women who were allegedly involved in the actual sex acts, involving the officers, were never arrested. Advocates say that was the right move.

Flagstaff PD mostly targeted the alleged managers of the parlors. Investigators, though, acknowledged there were larger bosses in different states.

There is no indication in reports, provided to ABC15, that larger out-of-state investigations were pursued. Homeland Security Investigations has provided a generic statement but did not answer any questions related to involvement in the operation.

Months after the undercover stings, 15 alleged parlor managers were indicted. Many of those criminal cases have been dismissed due to a variety of issues with the prosecution.

The Coconino County Attorney’s Office has repeatedly declined to answer questions.

The only response stated “we will not be doing any in-person interviews in ongoing prosecution cases.” ABC15 asked if they could comment on the multiple cases that have been dismissed, but we have not heard back.

As for Flagstaff PD, ABC15 broke the news that the Chief was put on leave, but a city spokesperson would not comment on the status of the officers saying ‘it’s a personnel matter.’