Louie Garcia, the former HSI supervisory agent, said he could barely believe it when he heard about the HSI agents’ behavior in the Mohave County operation, which he called unconscionable.
“These girls were victimized again by the agency who was supposed to be protecting them.” Garcia said. “That’s what bothers me.”
Garcia was one of more than 40 police policy experts, sex-trafficking researchers, law enforcement professionals and attorneys consulted by the Howard Center to understand the implications of what happened in the Arizona undercover investigation. All agreed that the undercover HSI agents crossed the line of ethical behavior for law enforcement, and some, including Garcia, thought they should have been prosecuted.
Garcia said he was told that senior agency officials in Washington “wanted heads to roll,” but the issue just quietly went away.
“I don’t know what caused them to change their position,” he said.
In the end, only one frontline supervisor was disciplined for the agents’ actions, according to Garcia. In addition, a complaint was filed with ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which conducts internal investigations of misconduct allegations.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said an assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix received a “brief” call from an Office of Professional Responsibility investigator to ask whether the HSI agents violated any federal law.
“No such federal violation was apparent from the information provided,” Esther Winne said in an emailed response to questions.
HSI did not provide further information about its internal investigation or administrative actions, although Winne noted the office had heard “sanctions” were issued.
A spokesman for the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, which has congressional oversight of the department, said it was not aware of the case.
As part of the sex-trafficking case, local police seized more than $136,000 in cash and assets, including cars, passports and numerous technology devices. The bulk of that, $105,120, was not returned even after the case fell apart. Instead, the assets became property of the police departments through civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow law enforcement to keep the proceeds of suspected illegal activity.
Yamauchi, the main target of the investigation, lost her 2005 Mercedes SUV and thousands of dollars in cash. She also lost custody of her young son, two dogs and a phone containing her son’s baby photos, according to her attorney.
“They took everything she owns under forfeiture,” Hallam said. “They didn’t get a conviction, but they destroyed her anyway.”
In addition to the financial losses, victim advocates say HSI’s investigative tactics revictimized the women they claimed to have rescued.
“Every time somebody comes and invades their body, it adds up,” said Mary Anne Layden, a sexual trauma expert at the University of Pennsylvania. “And if the person was somebody you should’ve been able to trust ... it’s even worse.”
Roe-Sepowitz, who also directs Arizona State University’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, said the case “just deepens the belief that law enforcement are not helpers” – a message traffickers repeat to keep their victims quiet.
“It’s such an insult to the victims of the work that we do to exploit them one more time,” she said, adding, “we don’t want to work in communities where law enforcement are exploiting the exploited.”
The case fell apart, the attorney said, because agents were committing crimes as they went undercover to investigate alleged sex trafficking in massage parlors along Arizona’s western border.Read more »
Howard Center journalists Mythili Gubbi, Alejandra Gamez, Beno Thomas and James Paidoussis contributed to this report.