Crime

St. Martin spa owner pleads guilty in human-trafficking case

Yeon Sook Hwang
Yeon Sook Hwang

GULFPORT -- Yeon Sook "Jackie" Hwang held it together in court Wednesday until she had to utter the word "guilty" for her role in a human trafficking operation she ran out of a spa in the St. Martin community that served as a front for sex slaves.

Hwang, 41, of Biloxi, pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering. In exchange for her plea, federal prosecutors said they plan to dismiss the remaining charges of human trafficking and four counts of money laundering.

Judge Sul Ozerden set her sentencing for Sept. 1. Hwang is facing a maximum prison term of 20 years and up to a $500,000 fine.

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

She has remained jailed without bond since her arrest in November.

As part of its case against Hwang, Assistant U.S. Attorney Annette Williams said prosecutors were prepared to show that the spa had more than $924,000 in cash deposits over a one-year period, all money of which was deposited in small amounts at various banks to avoid detection.

An FBI agent said early-on that a taxi cab driver acted as a courier for money and prostitutes for Hwang and was working undercover for the FBI during the investigation. The taxi driver, prosecutors said, received $345,477 in 2013 from Hwang that was deposited into various accounts in Mississippi and in other areas, including in Mobile and Slidell. The taxi driver told federal agents he drove the prostitutes to and from the airport and made the cash deposits in amounts less than $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements.

The taxi driver received an additional $63,422 in money orders, each for amounts less than $2,500, that he deposited into banks for Hwang.

Hwang had three bank accounts and deposited an additional $100,174 into her accounts for her own use. She received that money as well as a salary for running the business.

A criminal forfeiture has been filed in the case for the $100,174 Hwang put into her personal accounts.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell and District Attorney Tony Lawrence obtained a court order to shut down the business during a raid in November.

At the time of the raid, investigators seized client lists with phone numbers and various sex-related items, including condoms. Over a one-year period, federal authorities said Hwang purchased 9,072 condoms using the money brought in from the illegal prostitution.

When the raid occurred, investigators found Korean women who had been forced into sex labor at the business. They lived there and were not allowed to leave. Food and water was brought in to them.

Authorities also found evidence about the operations on a website that listed the type of sex acts available to customers at the spa, along with the costs and the demand for cash payments.

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