More than a year and a half after about 400 men were captured on video engaging in sex acts for cash at two Waco massage parlors, only 13 either have faced legal repercussions or have prosecution pending on misdemeanor prostitution charges.
However, the seized videos demonstrated the scope of local human trafficking offences, McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said. Facing the time-consuming and expensive task of identifying 400 men and building misdemeanor cases that could stand up in court, investigators ultimately shifted focus to rescuing victims and going after traffickers, McNamara said.
“This is greater than getting 400 misdemeanor convictions for our office,” he said. “This really opened our eyes to the volume, and we never would have believed that number of people would have come to a massage parlor, and how big this problem really is.”
Sheriff’s office detectives raided two local massage parlors in December 2017, at 2625 W. Waco Drive and 2509 Washington Ave. Both massage parlors had in-house surveillance cameras that captured the sex acts, giving authorities mountains of evidence of the suspected crimes by sex buyers, or “johns.”
“We had no idea we were going to be handed this kind of evidence,” McNamara said. “It was very overwhelming and time-consuming to go through that amount of video and see the sex acts and crimes being committed by johns.”
The operator of the businesses, Chun Yang Zhang, 49, was arrested on felony human trafficking charges. A trial date has been scheduled for Aug. 20 in Waco’s 19th State District Court.
A total of 16 cases charging men for buying sex stemming from the raids have been submitted to the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution.
Two cases were dismissed on grounds of insufficient evidence, and one man died before prosecution, District Attorney Barry Johnson said. Six of the men have agreed to and completed pretrial diversion programs, attending the Stop Demand School sponsored by Jesus Said Love, while seven offers for pretrial diversion remain pending, Johnson said.
The six who have completed pretrial diversion and had their charges dismissed are Kevin Chirafis, then 39; Roy Paul Surovik Jr., then 41; Daniel Henderson, 66, of Hewitt; Kyle Crow, then 53; Timothy Dean Comer, 68, of Waco; Stephen Johnson, 45, of Woodway.
The seven who could accept pretrial diversion offers or proceed to trial are Charles Daniel Shifflett Jr., 36, of Eddy; John Bull, then 63; Morris Dale Sappington, 54, of Waco; Edward Ignacio Espinosa, 43, of Waco; Gary Zacharias, then 49; and Elliot G. Stallings, 45, of Waco.
“There is always a conflict between law enforcement and the DA’s office, because we have to do what we have to do, but I understand their position, because they are out there jumping fences and looking down gun barrels and they get someone they know did it,” Johnson said. “When they bring it up to us, sometimes they get lawyers with law degrees telling them to go back and do some more work, but we have to prove these cases beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Lead human trafficking investigator Joseph Scaramucci started the process of combing through the video evidence from the raids, but because of the time and resources involved, officers were able to correctly identify just 16 of the hundreds of buyers pictured. Still, the process shed light on the larger issue, Scaramucci said.
“We realized how big of a problem this is,” he said. “Until you see it, you don’t realize how big of an ordeal this is and the victims that are caught in this operation that have no way to get out.”
McNamara said deputies decided to refocus human trafficking efforts on rescuing victims of human trafficking. While 400 misdemeanor arrests would have been notable, the department wants to take steps that have a better chance of cutting into cycles of sex trafficking, he said.
“After these two raids, we realized how big this problem really was,” McNamara said. “I am so proud of our guys, but we realized we needed to refocus our efforts and rescue victims of sex trafficking and try to cut the head off the snake.”
McNamara said efforts by local deputies have gained nationwide attention. Scaramucci and others have traveled across the country and internationally to train other law enforcement agencies and prosecutors for cases involving human trafficking.
“I am so proud of our guys for being leaders in this problem that is around the world,” McNamara said. “We have prosecuted some of our own, big time businessmen and others, and we are not going to let up in the least.”