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Arizona police investigating sex trafficking at massage parlor solicited sex acts from potential victims: report

Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert   

Arizona police investigating sex trafficking at massage parlor solicited sex acts from potential victims: report
  • Officers investigating sex trafficking at massage parlors engaged in sex acts with potential victims.
  • On multiple occasions, 2 officers solicited or allowed sexual contact from women who may have been trafficked.

During the course of an investigation into possible sex trafficking in Arizona massage parlors, two Flagstaff Police Department officers repeatedly allowed or solicited sexual contact from women who may have been trafficking victims, ABC 15 reported.

The months-long investigation, called "Operation High Country Hydra" by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who were jointly involved in the operation, sought information about suspected human trafficking, sex trafficking and prostitution in massage businesses.

ICE did not immediately return Insider's request for comment.

It was while searching for potential victims of sex trafficking that the officers engaged in sexual contact with multiple women, ABC15 reported. In a video deposition about the case, officer Dustin Eberhardt recounted eight instances where he entered massage parlors with recording devices, paid in cash for massage services, then removed his boxers and initiated sexual contact with the women working there.

"So I had just put my hand on the back of her calf and then held it there and then she laughed about it. And then shortly after that, we did the rest of the stuff and then she had me roll over," Eberhardt said in a video deposition ABC15 reported.

In his filings about the interactions, ABC15 reported, Eberhardt on several occasions mentioned how when he "placed [his] hand on the back of the female's calf…[it] appeared to let them know I was okay to solicit sexual favors."

Eberhardt added that the initial encounters were confusing and he negotiated whether to remove his boxers with the massage employees.

"I was like, 'Well, do you want me to take them off?' And so she was like, 'Well, your comfort – if you want them off or you don't want oil on them.' There was kind of some confusion on that, so I ended up taking them off because that's what I felt like the suggestion was from her," ABC15 reported Eberhardt said in a video deposition.

Once they were removed, he said the employees fondled his exposed genitals and he began discussing payment for the sex act.

"As soon as I got aroused, that's when I immediately started asking about the money and how much. And like I said, I've never done one of these, so I was fairly nervous and I didn't know where to stop it. So I was trying to stop it quickly."

Eberhardt did not immediately return Insider's request for comment.

A second police officer, identified as Officer Hutchinson by ABC15, returned to five of the same massage parlors Eberhardt did and did the same thing.

Such conduct by officers is specifically prohibited by state statute.

"A peace officer commits unlawful sexual conduct by knowingly engaging in sexual contact, oral sexual contact or sexual intercourse with any person who is in the officer's custody or a person who the officer knows or has reason to know is the subject of an investigation," reads Arizona state statute 13-1412.

In emails exchanged with ABC15, Flagstaff Police Chief Dan Musselman defended his employees' actions, saying they did not violate the law because they did not touch the women.

"Quite the opposite happened," ABC15 reported Musselman said in an email. "The subject fondled Officer Eberhardt thereby making him the victim of Sexual Abuse under 13-1404."

Musselman did not immediately return Insider's request for comment.

While no victims of sex trafficking were identified in the operation, 13 people were indicted on a mix of charges including conspiracy, money laundering, and operating a house of prostitution.

Operation High County Hydra is not the first time that the techniques of ICE and Arizona officers have been called into question during investigations into sex trafficking. One 2018 investigation, nicknamed "Operation Asian Touch," had similar reports of federal agents soliciting suspected trafficking victims for sex acts.

"The sex act doesn't have to happen. So for me, this is a far overstep into abuse of power, and raises some really disturbing ethical issues," Jenna Panas, CEO of Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, told ABC15.

"You don't ask victims to give you sexual pleasure. That is not appropriate. These are folks who don't have power and control over their own lives, and do not have the ability to give consent…and our police solicited sex acts."

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