IN-DEPTH: 'Operation Red Light' - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

IN-DEPTH: 'Operation Red Light'

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    Tuesday, July 10 2012 6:10 PM EDT2012-07-10 22:10:00 GMT
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SPOKANE, Wash. - For months, Operation Redlight was a secret. The year-long investigation into prostitution in Spokane came to a head on Tuesday when local and federal agencies raided eight "day spas" and "massage parlors", which police believe were front organizations for widespread prostitution rings.

At noon on Tuesday, law enforcement - led by the Airway Heights Police Department - simultaneously raided Oriental Spa North at 827 E. Francis Ave., its sister location Oriental Spa South on 515 S. Maple St., Joe Jean's Oriental Health Spa at 2712 N. Division St, Asian Spa at 3130 N. Division St., Starlite Spa at 2829 N. Market St., Absolute Spa at 9315 E. Trent Ave., Montana Spa at 7413 E. Trent Ave., and Far East Spa on 213 E. Sprague.

The owners of these spas also had their homes raided and many were arrested including co-owners of Oriental Spa North Tony Day, 36, and his mother, Chin Day, 68. Police also arrested 62-year-old Joe Jean's owner Yong C. Kassim; 59-year-old Starlite owner Insuk Argo; and 27-year-old Absolute Spa owner Jessica Vargas. Vargas resides in Moses Lake.

The suspects face charges of money laundering, criminal profiteering, and prostitution. They are on a 72-hour hold until prosecutors decide to press formal charges.

Police said the search warrants were conducted based on a year-long investigation into Prostitution, Promoting Prostitution, Money Laundering, Criminal Profiteering, and Controlled Substances. Not only did police seize several items inside the spas for evidence but they also seized items the suspects bought using funds from the illegal activities.

In a news conference Tuesday, Airway Heights Police Chief Lee Bennett said the investigation began a year ago when Kalispel Tribal police believed women were soliciting men for sex inside the Northern Quest Resort and Casino in Airway Heights.

Tribal Police tipped off Airway Heights Police who then conducted undercover strings of suspected prostitutes. Bennett said police pretended to be "Johns" and arranged to meet the suspected prostitutes at Northern Quest but later arrested them after they proposed to offer sex acts in exchange for money.

In a key moment in the investigation, many of those suspected prostitutes agreed to work as confidential informants for Airway Heights PD. In turn, the women spilled many of their secrets about the dark underbelly of the prostitution world in Spokane, which police admittedly had struggled to investigate in the past without their help. In many past cases, the website ads required references about johns from other prostitutes, a barrier police struggled to get around.

Before long, Bennett said, police were able to confirm that women were "cyber pimping": pre-arranging meetings with johns on websites that advertised erotic services like www.backpage.com and www.spokaneboard.com where they would then meet with the johns for sex acts at Northern Quest hotel rooms. The websites were regularly linked to the so-called spas, Bennett said.

"When we first started looking into it, there was approximately 40 to 50 women," Bennett said. "It looks, now, we maybe have upwards of 200 or 250 girls that cycle through the spas."

The woman ranged in age from 20 to 40 years old and made upwards of $6,000 a month while some of the businesses earn about $10,000, Bennett said.

Undercover officers then went in to individual spas checking for evidence of prostitution and other crimes.

"As far as we can tell, we did not find any typical massage-type equipment in these spas," Bennett continued. "We don't think anybody is going for a legitimate massage. We believe these are for prostitution."

Bennett said they have not found any minors, women being held against their will, or a human trafficking element but said that could be a possibility as the investigation continues.

Bennett also said one undercover officer was the victim of an attempted robbery by one of the prostitutes he'd met.

"There's probably lot of robberies or other issues that are going on that are not reported," Bennett said. "It's all criminal based."

While the investigation was led by the Airway Heights Police Department, it also included the Kalispel Tribal Police, Washington State Gambling Commission, Homeland Security Investigations, US Border Patrol, United States Marshals, Spokane County Sheriff's Office, Spokane Valley Police Department, Spokane Police Department, Liberty Lake Police Department and the Cheney Police Department.

 

KHQ'S CIA INVESTIGATION INTO ORIENTAL SPAS::

But on Tuesday at noon, local and federal agencies raided Oriental Spa North and its sister location Oriental Spa South . Both Tony and Chin Day are in the Spokane County Jail as part of the wide-ranging prostitution bust.

KHQ's Chelsea Kopta began investigating Oriental Spa and specifically Tony and Chin Day nearly a year ago after KHQ was contacted by a viewer claiming illegal activities were going on inside their business.

Were they a front for a prostitution ring? We went to find out.

At the time, the building was rundown, the windows were boarded up, the front doors were locked, but if you looked closer, you could see that Oriental Spa was open for business day and night.

We knocked on the back door entrance and spoke to a women who identified herself at Chin, the owner and manager. She she refused to show her face so from behind a cracked door, she answered our questions about alleged prostitution, backdoor deals, and sex acts. She denied any wrong doing.

KHQ then took our questions to Chin's son and co-owner, Tony Day. He also denied wrongdoing and fervently believed any claims to the contrary were the result of ex-employees looking to tarnish the company's name.

At the time. KHQ brought its concerns to the Spokane Police Chief at the time, Anne Kirkpatrick. She called some of these so-called spas organized prostitution rings.

So why weren't they investigating?

The former Chief gave three reasons. First, she drew a hard line between prostitutes who work behind closed doors and those on the streets. Secondly, she believed organized crime was much harder to fight. "Although I am not unmindful of the other type of organized prostitution, I also have to rely on other agencies that do organized crime, to help with that."

Finally, she believed prostitution was a victimless crime.

Tuesday, with a suspected prostitution raid blown wide open involving eight local spas, countless johns an prostitutes, KHQ went back to Spokane PD. While there are several factors when prioritizing crime in the city, Major Craig Meidl said Spokane Police prioritizes violent crimes with "real victims" over prostitution between two typically consenting adults.

"What is boils down to is when you have something of that magnitude where all the parties are willingly engaging in these activities and then you have these other crimes where you have a true victim and you only have limited resources to work those, you still, you prioritize those based on those logistics," Meidl said. "In this case, Airway Heights (Police) did all the footwork on it and they basically were ready to go and they basically said were ready to go and said 'will you guys help us out? We don't have the staffing work these.'"

Major Meidl also believed Airway Heights PD had a leg-up on the prostitution investigation since they were able to work with confidential informants, something Spokane Police had not been able to use in the past.

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