AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. - Three days after law enforcement raided eight Spokane spas and the homes of six spa owners in a coordinated effort dubbed "Operation Redlight", the lead police agency still has their hands full building their case.
On Thursday, Airway Heights Police - who led the nearly 14-month investigation to crackdown on spas they believed were fronts for prostitution rings - began the long process of cataloguing all of the items they seized during the raids.
Airway Heights Police Chief Lee Bennett said they have hundreds of items to catalogue including computers, cars, ATM machines, cash, and equipment from inside the spas. At one spa alone, Bennett said, law enforcement confiscated 50 pieces of equipment.
In addition to the spas, police seized any items at the spa owners' homes which they believed were paid for with the money earned from the alleged prostitution. Items purchased from "ill-gotten gains" included everything from cars to silver bullions.
While the detective teams at Airway Heights PD are working nearly around the clock, Bennett said it's well worth it to build their case.
"I think what it really does is, it really strengthens our case," he said. "I believe we have an extra strong case going into this but I think this bolsters that even more."
In addition to breaking down and cataloguing evidence, the raids prompted a lot of people within the spa community to come forward with more information. Detectives are now setting up interviews with witnesses to track down as much information as they can.
Bennett believes his team might be finished cataloguing by Wednesday of next week.
SPOKANE, Wash. -- For months, Operation Redlight was a secret. The year-long investigation into prostitution in Spokane came to a head on Tuesday when local and federal agencies raided eight "day spas" and "massage parlors", which police believe were front organizations for widespread prostitution rings.
At noon on Tuesday, law enforcement - led by Airway Heights Police - simultaneously raided Oriental Spa North at 827 E. Francis Ave., its sister location Oriental Spa South on 515 S. Maple St., Joe Jean's Oriental Health Spa at 2712 N. Division St, Asian Spa at 3130 N. Division St., Starlite Spa at 2829 N. Market St., Absolute Spa at 9315 E. Trent Ave., Montana Spa at 7413 E. Trent Ave., and Far East Spa on 213 E. Sprague.
The owners of these spas also had their homes raided and many were arrested including co-owners of Oriental Spa North Tony Day, 36, and his mother, Chin Day, 68. Police also arrested 62-year-old Joe Jean's owner Yong C. Kassim; 59-year-old Starlite owner Insuk Argo; and 27-year-old Absolute Spa owner Jessica Vargas. Vargas resides in Moses Lake.
The suspects face charges of money laundering, criminal profiteering, and prostitution. They are on a 72-hour hold until prosecutors decide to press formal charges.
Police said the search warrants were conducted based on a year-long investigation into Prostitution, Promoting Prostitution, Money Laundering, Criminal Profiteering, and Controlled Substances. Not only did police seize several items inside the spas for evidence but they also seized items the suspects bought using funds from the illegal activities.
In a news conference Tuesday, Airway Heights Police Chief Lee Bennett said the investigation began a year ago when Kalispel Tribal police believed women were soliciting men for sex inside the Northern Quest Resort and Casino in Airway Heights.
Tribal Police tipped off Airway Heights Police who then conducted undercover strings of suspected prostitutes. Bennett said police pretended to be johns and arranged to meet the suspected prostitutes at Northern Quest but later arrested them after they proposed to offer sex acts in exchange for money.
In a key moment in the investigation, many of those suspected prostitutes agreed to work as confidential informants for Airway Heights PD. In turn, the women spilled many of their secrets about the dark underbelly of the prostitution world in Spokane, which police admittedly had struggled to investigate in the past without their help. In many past cases, the website ads required references about johns from other prostitutes, a barrier police struggled to get around.
Before long, Bennett said, police were able to confirm that women were "cyber pimping": pre-arranging meetings with johns on websites that advertised erotic services like <http://www.backpage.com>www.backpage.com <http://www.backpage.com> and <http://www.spokaneboard.com>www.spokaneboard.com <http://www.spokaneboard.com> where they would then meet with the johns for sex acts at Northern Quest hotel rooms. The websites were regularly linked to the so-called spas, Bennett said.
"When we first started looking into it, there was approximately 40 to 50 women," Bennett said. "It looks, now, we maybe have upwards of 200 or 250 girls that cycle through the spas."
The woman ranged in age from 20 to 40 years old and made upwards of $6,000 a month while some of the businesses earn about $10,000, Bennett said.
Undercover officers then went in to individual spas checking for evidence of prostitution and other crimes.
"As far as we can tell, we did not find any typical massage-type equipment in these spas," Bennett continued. "We don't think anybody is going for a legitimate massage. We believe these are for prostitution."
Bennett said they have not found any minors, women being held against their will, or a human trafficking element but said that could be a possibility as the investigation continues.
Bennett also said one undercover officer was the victim of an attempted robbery by one of the prostitutes he'd met.
"There's probably lot of robberies or other issues that are going on that are not reported," Bennett said. "It's all criminal based."
While the investigation was led by the Airway Heights Police Department, it also included the Kalispel Tribal Police, Washington State Gambling Commission, Homeland Security Investigations, US Border Patrol, United States Marshals, Spokane County Sheriff's Office, Spokane Valley Police Department, Spokane Police Department, Liberty Lake Police Department and the Cheney Police Department.