A detective in a massage-parlor sting was nude when he began receiving what court records call a "hand job" from a suspect in May, but Glendale police insist that the officer stayed within policy.
The incident during an undercover operation demonstrates the fine line officers must walk to make busts when their targets know the rules of the game. Getting nude or performing sex acts with prostitution suspects has raised controversy in Arizona and other states in the past, such as in the bungled 2003 sting by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office that resulted in cases against 60 defendants getting tossed.
The undercover officer was part of a broad investigation by a law-enforcement task force into a ring of suspected prostitutes. The probe culminated in raids last Wednesday on businesses and homes in Glendale, Scottsdale, and Phoenix. Four Chinese women in their 40s and 50s were arrested on suspicion of operating a house of prostitution, illegal control of an enterprise, money laundering, and conspiracy. A U.S. citizen, Brian Groff, also was arrested in connection with the ring; a fifth suspected prostitute remains at large.
The suspects made millions of dollars since 2009, taking bulk cash to China on airplanes before filtering it back into U.S. banks, said officials with the state Attorney General's office, which is handling prosecution.
Officers with the Glendale, Chandler, Scottsdale, and Phoenix police departments helped make the case by using video surveillance, combing through accounting records found in trash, and sending undercover officers into the massage parlors. Much of the evidence of prostitution was collected by officers who negotiated sex acts with the suspects, typically a $40 "hand job," before any clothing was removed.
But in at least one instance noted on a booking sheet submitted to the Maricopa County Superior Court, a detective stripped down and received a massage before the suspect began giving him a "hand job."
The suspect, 55-year-old Ding Hengxia, had the undercover officer "roll over and after doing so Hengxia began to masturbate (hand job) without solicitation or an agreed price. [The detective] left the business before the act could be consummated," court records state.
New Times' inquiries about this statement in the public record have created consternation among officials at Glendale police officials and the Arizona AG's office.
Officer Tracey Breeden, spokeswoman for Glendale police, said the info in the booking sheet about what happened between the detective and suspect was "incorrect," and that questions about the court record should be directed to the AG's office. Mia Garcia, spokeswoman for state AG Mark Brnovich, referred questions back to Glendale PD.
On Friday, Breeden released a report written by the detective that confirms the description in the booking sheet, making it unclear what Glendale police think is "incorrect."
According to the report, the detective arrived at the Shangri-La Spa at 6670 West Cactus Road in Glendale on May 4 "to see if any of the employees would offer me a sex act."
After a few minutes in a waiting room, an Asian woman wearing a yellow shirt and animal-print skirt asked him if he wanted a massage. He said "yes," then was directed to go to another room and take off his clothes, which he did.
"Once I was disrobed I laid on the bed on my stomach and covered my backside with a towel," the detective wrote.
He began to receive a massage, then was told it was time to turn over.
"As soon as I was laying on my back I placed the towel back over my private parts," he wrote. "She then put her hands under the towel and manually manipulated my penis. I asked her if that was included in the price and she laughed as if she didn't understand me."
Somehow, despite his nudity, the detective was recording audio of his encounter. When the woman began the hand job, the detective said a code word that tipped off his fellow officers. His cell phone rang, and he told the woman he had to take a work call. After he got off the phone, the woman came back into the room and rubbed lotion off the detective's back.
"She again grabbed my penis and tried to manually manipulate it," he wrote. "I then got off the table and told her I needed to leave."
Breeden tells New Times that six Glendale detectives worked this case but only one detective disrobed. He, along with other detectives, "receive extensive training in undercover stings and rules of conduct," she says. "The rules of conduct are clear. Detectives are allowed to disrobe but are not allowed to expose themselves. They are not allowed to commit sex crimes in undercover operations, such as indecent exposure or sex acts."
Stripping down at a massage parlor is the "industry standard and societal norm," she says.
"In an undercover capacity, the detective will disrobe to appear to be a legitimate client," she says. "However, they will cover themselves as to not expose themselves."
If a masseuse reaches under a towel and grabs a detective, she goes on, this would count as felony sexual abuse. Guidelines dictate that, as the detective did in this case, an "abort/alert code word" be given and a detective would attempt to leave, she says, adding that the detective is instructed to "immediately exit" if a second grabbing attempt is made.
The difference between being disrobed and being exposed may seem a gray area, but court records show that undercover Phoenix police refused to expose themselves in different encounters with other Chinese suspects in the case.
Enjoy Massage worker Fengqin Ye frustrated the efforts of Phoenix police in July by demanding they show their privates. The officers, who'd gone in separately, both left without evidence of a crime that day, noting in court records that Ye "is knowledgeable that law enforcement officers are not allowed to expose themselves."
"It's not about getting naked — that happens under towels and sheets during a massage," says Phoenix police spokesman Sergeant Trent Crump. "We prohibit our undercovers from intentionally exposing themselves or engaging in sexual contact."
However, the rules are different at the Scottsdale Police Department, which has a working policy "that our officers do not get naked in these cases," says spokesman Sergeant Benjamin Hoster.
Phoenix attorney Dwane Cates, who's defended many prostitution cases, says the context matters when officers disrobe in such cases. If the detective had completely stripped down with a suspected prostitute in a hotel room, that could be problematic legally, he says. Undercover prostitution stings raise ethical issues that juries might not like, he says — especially if it appears the officer was receiving sexual gratification.
In the case of the Chinese suspects, Cates believes it may have been fine for the detective to disrobe.
"People get naked when they get a massage — that's just the way it works," he says.
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The Maricopa County Attorney's Office declined comment on the issue. Back in 2004, a spokesman for then-County Attorney Rick Romley told the media that prosecutors had not agreed to any law-enforcement nudity in the sting conducted by Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office. That case also involved at least one posse member reporting that he had completed a sex act with a suspect.
No policy exists at the Pima County Attorney’s Office in Tucson regarding such matters: "If an officer removed his clothing during an undercover investigation of a prostitution ring, we would consider all the facts involved in the investigation regarding a charging decision," says office spokeswoman Stephanie Coronado.
Regarding the recent stings here, Brnovich spokesman Ryan Anderson says, "I'm confident the officers [who] were involved in these investigations upheld their own internal policies and conducted their investigations with the highest standards possible."