When the Oakwood Police Department executed an undercover sting on a massage parlor, netting a prostitution arrest and other charges related to trading sex for money, they noticed some odd circumstances.
For starters, the 42-year-old masseuse arrested was flagged for an immigration violation, and her place of residence was a Washington, D.C., suburb. The owner of the parlor closed the shop and skipped town after being asked by law enforcement to shut down the business, police Chief Randall Moon said.
A potential human trafficking tie seemed worth exploring, but was quickly dismissed, Moon said, for lack of evidence.
Hyun Ran Lee, 42, was charged with prostitution, masturbation for hire and keeping a place of prostitution. Because of her immigrant status, and because she’s a resident of Centreville, Va., Moon said at the time there were “some complaints of what people thought was human trafficking.”
The owner’s business license was pulled until further review before the city council. He agreed to close the business to avoid charges, Moon said.
“To pursue the human trafficking angle, that might lead to Gwinnett (County), and Gwinnett to Virginia, so you just try to work with other agencies, but it doesn’t interest them unless a solid case had been there,” Moon said. “We tend to move on.”
Such investigative help isn’t always readily available for local police departments with limited budgets and manpower. Larger departments nearby are swamped with their own casework, and statewide and federal agencies have more narrow priorities.
Just addressing the immediate concern of halting the illegal exchange of sex and money wasn’t easy for Oakwood — recruiting an undercover agent from agencies burdened with similar issues proved difficult.
“My biggest thing about that was just trying to get someone outside the department so they wouldn’t be recognized,” Moon said.
Eventually the Hall County Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad was able to lend an agent.
Post-arrest, Moon asked if the FBI could help his department look into the case, but the bureau declined.
Moon said that if there had been more slam-dunk evidence, help would have been more likely from the FBI. In general, being turned down in such a case is not unusual, he said.
“Some of the responses are is, if it doesn’t involve terrorism, we can’t investigate,” Moon said.
Special Agent Stephen Emmett with the FBI field office in Atlanta said the bureau doesn’t have a set policy on trafficking, but looks at each individual case based on known facts.
“Whether the FBI initiates a human trafficking based federal investigation or not is determined on a case-by-case basis and relying on those initial set of facts obtained,” Emmett said. “While the race, nationality, ethnic origin of the victim doesn’t necessarily matter, other relevant facts could be brought out during an interview of the alleged victim to determine any elements of human trafficking.”
The office recognizes the problem of trafficking in Atlanta, he said.
“The FBI Atlanta Field Office does have experienced agents to handle such matters,” he said. “Atlanta, to include metro Atlanta and beyond, is no stranger to human trafficking activities ranging from child prostitution/exploitation, adult prostitution, to labor/indentured servitude matters.”
Moon said that sometimes when a case gets big, he’ll request help from other agencies, but that Oakwood can handle its own investigation, in most cases.
“Really what we try to do, if we have a case, and the case is something big, we work it start to finish,” Moon said. “We usually just go ahead and take charge.”
Oakwood investigators worked the last three homicide cases in the city, Moon said.
However, there are certain areas where outside help in the investigation is good to have.
“A good example: When we have a homicide, and it’s going to take a lot of time before we have a suspect, generally what the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) would want to do to assist us is come out for crime-scene processing,” Moon said. “By allowing them to come to the scene, there are less hands on the evidence, because they’ll process it eventually anyway.”
When it comes to human trafficking, the GBI limits its scope.
“First, I think we have to define human trafficking,” said Sandra Putnam, Special Agent in Charge of the GBI’s Child Exploitation And Computer Crimes Unit. “The GBI has specifically focused on the part of human trafficking that deals with domestic, child sex trafficking.
“From the state perspective, what we found is we had a problem in our state dealing with our child sex trafficking. A lot of times we found it’s dealing with our runaways — people that are in foster homes, girls that are on the street and meet a ‘boyfriend’ until he gets that girl to work for him. That is what the GBI focuses on.”
The GBI seeks to empower agencies to work cases themselves by offering training.
“What we’re finding is that as we get training out to local law enforcement — indicators of how to spot trafficking — they’re starting to recognize the problem and make cases,” Putnam said.
A criminal statute passed by the legislature is specific to trafficking, Putnam said.
“A lot of the times, it is just educating local law enforcement on the trafficking statute which, No. 1, protects these girls and treats them as victims,” she said. “We are finding that the GBI’s model, and using training and education as an important component, is leading to a lot of good investigation and a lot of good prosecution.”
Putnam said trafficking cases do require considerable resources.
“A lot of these cases are not worked in one or two days. They do take a lot of law enforcement resources,” Putnam said.
The scarcity of resources limits the agency similarly to the FBI in where they lend assistance to local departments.
“The unit that works these child exploitation cases only has 10 agents for the whole state of Georgia, so you can imagine at the GBI we have limited resources, and that’s why it’s so important that we work in partner with federal agencies — so we can all work together to make good investigations,” Putnam said. “A lot these cases we just have to take on a case-by-case basis to see if we have the resources available to work that investigation.”
Meanwhile, the GBI hopes to continue helping local agencies, large and small, on the trafficking front. The bureau, along with the Department of Homeland Security and FBI, is sponsoring a human trafficking symposium in Atlanta in March.
“That’s new — that’s something we put together,” Putnam said. “A lot of focus has been educating people on what human trafficking is; we now know that everyone knows what is. Now we’re going to teach people how to investigate it, bringing in non-governmental agencies, DFCS. It’s a huge undertaking.”
Moon himself has done training with the Chief’s Association, as have some of his investigators.
“Obviously it’s something we don’t come across every day, but we do and have received training,” he said.
Regardless, if there was more to the story with the Oakwood spa, Moon said he hopes the sting has a deterrent effect to keep such activity out of Oakwood.
And Moon emphasized that he’s proud to have a department that doesn’t necessarily need larger agencies to step in.
“I’ve always been proud of our agency being small and making good cases,” Moon said. “I’ve never believed in passing the buck.”