Site Search

Entire (RSS)
Comments (RSS)

Archive Calendar

May 2021


How to Become a Bounty Hunter

Happy Ending For Law Enforcement in Spa Crackdown

About ten years ago the Ann Arbor (MI) Police Department’s Deputy Chief came to me with a proposal. AAPD wanted to know if the FBI would be willing to help investigate Asian spas in Ann Arbor, and prosecute them federally. At the time I was the senior agent in the local FBI office and knew next to nothing about Asian spas. I was not even aware there were five such spas operating in the city.

I consulted with the local U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) and FBIHQ. I got the go-ahead and learned there were other similar cases being pursued elsewhere in the country. Further there were national implications involved, e.g., organized crime, indentured servitude, immigrant smuggling, and sexual exploitation, which the then US Attorney General had made a priority. I went back to AAPD and told them we could pursue the spas federally, but only if AAPD was willing to commit to a long-term investigation. To AAPDʼs credit, it made that commitment. (I wanted to codename the case Operation Hoedown, but due to some HQ’s sensibility issues, we had to settle for Seoul Provider.)

Ten years later, this story is worth recounting. These type of spas still operate around the country and exploit vulnerable women and degrade communities. We can’t ignore them. But what’s particularly nice about this story is how the FBI and the local police worked so well together, and in the end, the police department reaped the financial rewards from forfeitures.

At the onset of the case, the AAPD understood that the spas could be shut down easily like the speakeasies of the prohibition era, but to have any lasting impact the owners had to to be identified and prosecuted.  It was relatively easy to show there was prostitution occurring in these spas, the trick (no pun intended) was to prove the owners had knowledge that prostitution was occurring, and they were
profiting from it.

All of the spas in Ann Arbor were run by Korean Americans and surveillance and telephone pen-registers indicated some interaction between spas in Ann Arbor and all over the country. All of the spas that we became aware of in Michigan and Ohio were run by Korean Americans. All of these spas had a very similar operating procedure. The working girls were almost exclusively Asian and lived on the premises and seldom left. They moved from one spa to another after six weeks to two months. The spas were usually managed by older Asian women, who were in effect madams. Often the spas would have the working girls sign agreements as independent contractors, thus helping give the owners plausible deniability as to knowledge of sexual activity. The working girls were in almost all cases uncooperative with law enforcement and could not be relied upon as potential witnesses. Despite them being exploited, most had very limited skills, English language ability and were in an indentured servitude status. Life was not good by American standards, but pretty good compared to what they had come from.

The spas operated seven days a week with very long hours, e.g., 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. (not the kind of hours observed in legitimate massage parlors). The spas would set fees such as $45 for a half hour and $60 for an hour. Generally these initial fees went to the house. The money for sex was added to the initial fee and was negotiated based on the sexual activity. The money for sex was split between the house and the girls. All of the spas we investigated accepted credit cards. This turned out to be a key element in proving the owners knowledge. The owners would establish the merchant account to enable them to accept credit cards. Thus, all proceeds from the credit cards went directly to the owner. So if a customer were to pay his initial fee with a credit card and then within 10 or 15 minutes have a second charge in excess of $100 made on the card it was obvious what was occurring and difficult for the owner to argue they had no knowledge of the sexual activity. (All the credit transaction information was obtained via subpoena.) This coupled with physical surveillance, which included “trash pulls” (the trash pulls revealed among other things, used condoms and daily business records)   and evidence obtained when we ultimately executed search warrants resulted in all of the spa owners being convicted of federal felony charges.

Most of these charges were based on Interstate Transportation In Aid Of Racketeering (ITAR)-prostitution statute (18USC1952), but there were also immigration statutes that were applicable. Also if the owners were not US citizens, they were subject to deportation upon conviction.

The reward for AAPD’s commitment to a long-term investigation was that they received most of about $1 million in criminal forfeiture proceeds seized from the convicted owners.
Yes, for law enforcement, it was a happy ending.


Greg Stejskal

Sleeper Cell Nightmare

We just observed the 8th anniversary of 9/11.
So much has changed since then. It was a watershed moment in American history and has had a profound effect on law enforcement. Priorities have changed; Federal state and local agencies are cooperating at unprecedented levels.
However, not all the effects have been positive. Politics, egos and hubris have come into play. One of the first victims of this Machiavellian landscape was Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Convertino and his successful prosecution in Detroit of a terrorist sleeper cell, U.S. v. Koubriti; et al. The conviction drew national attention and was hailed by the Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft as a great victory in the war on terrorism.
Then we entered bizzarro world.
Convertino was invited to appear before a Senate committee to discuss what he had learned about potential terrorists obtaining false identity documents and related matters from his prosecution of the sleeper cell case. Despite the fact that Convertino had developed expertise and knowledge, having successfully prosecuted the case, higher-ups in the Department of Justice, including the Detroit U.S. Attorney at the time, thought that they, not Convertino, should have the distinction of appearing before the Senate Committee.
Only thing was that the Senate Committee had specifically requested Convertino, and they issued a subpoena. Convertino could have arguably avoided the appearance, but he had a message, which he wanted to impart. He testified. By all accounts he represented the DOJ well, but egos were bruised and the snowball began to roll down hill. The DOJ initiated an internal investigation of Convertino based on what later proved to be inaccurate allegations of misconduct. These allegations were leaked to a Detroit newspaper by someone in the Detroit U.S. Attorney’s office.
In response to the published false allegations, Convertino filed a “whistle-blower” civil action naming the Attorney General and others as defendants. Ultimately Convertino was criminally indicted for supposed misconduct in the terrorist trial and related activity. Furthermore, DOJ dropped the charges in the sleeper cell case and the convictions were vacated. Those convicted terrorists remain free.
Convertino was forced to defend himself against the U.S. for whom he had been so proud to represent as a prosecutor. The basis of the indictment charging Convertino was there were photos taken by the government of one of sites that was targeted by the terrorists. A sketch of the target had been found in the terrorists’ apartment. It was alleged that Convertino was aware of these photos, but hid them from defendant/terrorists because they might be favorable to the defense. However, at trial the government was unable to show that Convertino knew the photos existed, and even worse, the photos probably would have been helpful to the prosecution because the site depicted in the sketch appeared to be the same as the one in the photos.
After about a three-week trial, and less than a day of jury deliberation, Convertino was acquitted, but not until he and his family were put through the public and painful ordeal of a criminal trial. I had retired from the FBI, and I agreed to help Convertino as an investigator pro bono.
During my career as a FBI agent, I worked with Rick on numerous cases, some of them high profile. Rick helped successfully prosecute the Detroit Mafia case in 1998. He was the lead prosecutor on the Washtenaw County gang case, which resulted in the destruction of gang factions in the Willow Run neighborhood of Ypsilanti Township . He also oversaw the investigation of Eddie Martin; et al. Martin ran a large “numbers” racket, & he had ties to some players in the University of Michigan basketball program. In all those cases and others, Rick demonstrated professionalism and upheld the highest standards of the Justice Department. To be sure Rick was an aggressive and combative prosecutor, but he never compromised his integrity in pursuing justice.
The acquittal in Rick’s case renews my faith in a system that I served for over 32 years. But that faith was badly shaken by these charges and the ” Alice in Wonderland” trial. Time has passed. But one question remains:
Where does Rick go to get his reputation back?

To contact Greg Stejskal write:

Listen To NPR’s “This American Life” Report On Convertino

We Need To Do More About Illegal Steroids

In 1994, I wrote an article, “They shoot horses, don’t they? Anabolic steroids and their challenge to law enforcement.” I was involved at the time in an undercover operation, codenamed Equine, and the case had moved into the prosecution phase. Ultimately more than 70 dealers were convicted.
Fourteen years later, the problem not only persists, but has been complicated by the ease in which people can buy illegal steroids on the Internet. These days we still hear too much about athletes using steroids to enhance their performance. Unfortunately, what we hear is only the tip of the iceberg.
That said, we need to continue cracking down on this dangerous drug. We also need tougher penalties. The drug not only poses a health risk, but undercuts the integrity of sports. In 1994 I warned Major League Baseball of steroid use by some high-profile players- a warning that was apparently ignored to MLB’s detriment.
It’s helpful to know the history and nature of anabolic steroids.
Steroids are a synthetic version of the male hormone testosterone. Anabolic refers to a substance that promotes growth. (Although all steroids are not anabolic, for simplicity, the terms will be interchanged.) When taken internally, steroids will, in conjunction with weight training, promote extraordinary weight gain and muscular development.
Steroids have become especially prevalent in football, professional wrestling, track and field, swimming, and bodybuilding. One bodybuilder indicted in Equine admitted, “to appear in the Nationals (the National Bodybuilding Championships) without using steroids would be like competing in the Miss America Contest without makeup.”
Taken over a period of time, steroids can have detrimental effects on the body. Men may suffer from hypertension, sterility, female breast development, premature hair loss, infections, cysts or irreversible heart and/or liver damage. Studies also indicate that steroid use increases the risk of developing cancer and can even result in death. Further, prolonged use of steroids may result in the body discontinuing the natural production of testosterone, a condition that could become permanent.
Because women, by nature, have little testosterone, steroids pose an even greater threat to them. In addition to most of the problems noted above, women develop many masculine traits, such as increased body and facial hair and a deepened voice.
Though athletes may benefit from some aggression, aggressive behavior brought on by steroid use can be difficult to control and can result in unacceptable social behavior that may even be dangerous to the user or others. It has sometimes been referred to as “roid rage.”
Last year, wrestler pro wrestler Chris Benoit strangled his wife, suffocated his 7-year-old son and placed a Bible next to their bodies before hanging himself with a weight-machine pulley. Authorities found anabolic steroids in the house.
During the time when we were preparing to begin Equine, I learned an FBI agent’s son had committed suicide as a result of depression caused by his use and then cycling off steroids.
Recently, a study indicated that steroid use may lead to criminal or violent behavior, especially in 12-to17-year-olds. To boot, in some instances, police officers taking steroids have used excessive force in subduing subjects.
Unfortunately, steroids have been even easier to get since the Equine case. Steroids are readily available via the internet and the predominant source of the active ingredient, the synthetic testosterone, is China .
This scenario raises concerns regarding quality control, contaminants, etc. Often the steroid ingredient is sent from China to another country such as Mexico , where it is bottled, packaged or compressed into pill form for distribution with no accompanying oversight by any regulating agencies.
Even back during Equine , nearly 50 percent of the approximately 10 million dosage units of steroids seized during the course of the investigation was counterfeit, i.e., the purported steroid contained no steroid.
Today most steroids for the human black market are no longer manufactured by legitimate drug companies so the same problems that were associated only with the counterfeit steroids are now prevalent with all steroids.
The illegal sale of anabolic steroids has been a felony under Federal law since 1988. On November 28, 1990, President Bush (the first) signed into law the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990. Effective February 27, 1991, the law placed 27 anabolic steroids and their derivatives into Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule III drugs, by definition, have the potential for abuse, but less than substances in Schedules I or II, which have a “high potential for abuse.” Abuse of a Schedule III drug may lead to “moderate or low physical dependence.”
Unfortunately, classifying steroids as Schedule III drugs has resulted in light sentencing guidelines, and only a dealer selling massive quantities of steroids gets a sentence beyond nominal incarceration.
This criticism surfaced during the prosecution phase of Equine, and unfortunately, the guidelines have not changed.
They need to.
Aspiring athletes should not have to use steroids to achieve greatness in their sport.. Steroid use perverts the goals of sports and athletic competition. A victory achieved through steroid use is hollow, at best. At worst, the athlete may face prosecution or even death.
I would like to dedicate this article to the late University of Michigan Football Coach Bo Schembechler , who first alerted me to the problem of steroids in athletics and inspired our pursuit of the illicit distribution of steroids.
To contact Greg Stejskal write: