Crime

St. Martin spa owner to enter plea in sex-trafficking case

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD 
 Officials announced on Friday Nov. 20, 2015 that state and federal human trafficking charges had been filed against the owners of J.J. Spa LLC in St. Martin and a civil charge of public nuisance was used to close the business down.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD Officials announced on Friday Nov. 20, 2015 that state and federal human trafficking charges had been filed against the owners of J.J. Spa LLC in St. Martin and a civil charge of public nuisance was used to close the business down. SUN HERALD

GULFPORT -- A Korean national accused of engaging in human trafficking while she was operating a spa as a front for sex slaves in Jackson County and laundering money to conceal the illegal operation has decided to plead guilty to a charge of money laundering, court records show.

Yeon Sook "Jackie" Hwang, 41, of Biloxi, had been set to go trial in July but her attorney, Jim Davis, has informed the courts Hwang has decided to plead guilty to one charge in exchange for the government dismissing some of the remaining charges.

A federal grand jury indicted Hwang on Oct. 6 on charges of human-trafficking and conspiracy to commit money laundering, and four counts of money laundering.

Hwang headed up operations at JJ Spa and Massage parlor in a strip mall on North Washington Avenue in the St. Martin community.

She was denied bond in December after Judge Sul Ozerden heard testimony from an FBI agent who investigated the case.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell and District Attorney Tony Lawrence obtained a court order to shut down the business in November after a year-old investigation prompted by complaints.

At the time of the arrest, investigators seized client lists with phone numbers, along with various sex-related items, including condoms.

FBI agent James Grunwald said in testimony early on that a cab driver who acted as courier for money and prostitutes for the spa was working undercover for the FBI. He said the driver told them he drove the sex slaves to and from the airport and made cash deposits of less than $10,000 at various banks to avoid reporting requirements. Any amount over $10,000 has to be reported and the smaller ones prevent attention. Hwang, the agent said, had three bank accounts in her name and deposits were made into other accounts or directly to women working as Hwang's prostitutes.

Investigators said Hwang brought women from California, Georgia, New York, Colorado, North Carolina, and Texas to work as sex slaves at the St. Martin business.

Grunwald also testified $924,000 passed through Hwang's hands within two years and as many as 50 women had worked there in a five-month period. The spa also ordered 9,000 condoms over a two-year period.

When authorities raided the spa, they said four Korean women forced into sex labor were living at the business, and they had not been allowed to leave. Food and water was brought to them, authorities said.

Authorities said all of the sex slaves were under the age of 30 and spoke little English.

During the investigation, Jackson County investigators and FBI agents, including Grunwald, found posts about the spa on a website that listed the type of sex acts available for customers, along with the costs and the demand for cash payments.

Hwang's initial detention hearing was delayed because Hwang said she did not speak English and needed an interpreter.

An FBI agent, however, testified the director of the Mississippi State Board of Massage Therapy told him Hwang had passed a 25-page test in English and spoke English very well. Customers, Grunwald said, also told authorities she spoke English.

Hwang's attorney is requesting an interpreter for her plea hearing. A date has not yet been set.

Court records say the crimes at the massage parlor began in August 2012.

Hwang has remained jailed without bond since her arrest.

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