By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Vice officers under investigation after alleged pimp turns the tables
On a late Friday night in May, Dallas vice officers arrived at the windowless corner of a one-story building and knocked on the wood doors of the Acapulco Spa. Tucked away in a run-down strip mall a mile from the adult businesses that dot the area near the intersection of Harry Hines and Northwest Highway, the spa served as an ill-disguised front for prostitution. After investigating the place for weeks, the police came to arrest its owner, Stephen McPherson.
They seemed to have an airtight case against the 37-year-old Frisco resident. Undercover officers chronicled several instances where the spa employees were willing to flip massages into sex acts in exchange for wads of cash. Several of them were willing to testify against McPherson, detailing how he advised them to avoid trouble with the law. On May 27, when the police hauled him into custody, they confiscated his many tricks of the trade, including surveillance equipment, computers, credit card machines, porn magazines and his business records.
Six days before McPherson was arrested, he met with his attorney and handed him a DVD. According to the women who worked for him, McPherson planted hidden cameras inside the rooms at the Acapulco Spa that were hooked up by remote to his home computer. There he'd keep tabs on the hired help. But on the DVD he turned into his counsel, McPherson accidentally captured an entirely different cast: fully nude officers receiving full-body massages from the scantily clad employees they were targeting.
Now, as a result of that footage, two of the officers who received massages are awaiting disciplinary action after a months-long internal affairs investigation determined that they violated department policy. Meanwhile, the man they busted that night, McPherson, may strut away from the sordid affair with no blemish on his record, leaving a darkly comic wake of findings against the men in blue who upended his business.
In August, a grand jury declined to indict McPherson, despite the mountain of evidence officers had accumulated. Julian Bernal, the deputy chief of the Narcotics and Vice Division, explains that it was hard to obtain an indictment while the internal affairs investigation was looking into the behavior of the arresting officers.
On May 17, at least five plainclothes officers disrobed entirely and received massages from the employees at the Acapulco Spa. According to prosecution reports, the women were allowed to rub their breasts on the officers' backs, grab their penises and begin oral sex before the officers arrested them. Most of the women were either naked or topless. One woman wore short shorts and a see-through net top.
Two of the officers who received nude massages from spa employees will likely receive disciplinary action, according to Bernal. Footage reviewed by investigators showed that officer D.M. Waterson allowed a spa employee to touch his penis "for a longer time than was necessary," according to Bernal. The deputy chief would not detail what that actually means, although he said departmental rules lay out how an undercover officer should behave if his penis is touched during a massage. Internal affairs investigators also cited Officer Claude Stephen Hall on a more minor transgression. Footage demonstrates that when an employee touched the officer's penis, he put a stop to it immediately. Howard told his supervisor what had happened; however, in his arrest report he did not detail how the woman touched him nor that she gave him a naked massage.
"What I told them is we need to be above reproach in all our actions," Bernal says about his vice officers, most of whom, he says, followed procedure during the Acapulco sting. "We need to document everything so we don't give the impression that we're hiding a thing."
The investigation into Officer Hall came after the woman he hauled into custody turned over a complaint to her attorney. Robin Francisco's first day at the Acapulco job ended with her arrest after Hall caught her agreeing to a "blow job and a fuck" for $150. Because she was indigent, a court appointed her a lawyer by the name of Robin Berry, a former attorney for the city of Dallas.
By the time Berry took the case, Francisco had spent nearly a week at the Dallas County jail. Berry told her client that if she pleaded guilty, she'd probably be set free immediately with her punishment being the time she already served. But Francisco, a mother of three, wanted to fight on principle.
"She asked me if it makes a difference 'if the police officer came on to me,'" Berry recalls.
Francisco returned to her cell and produced a note from Hall that included his name and direct line. She says he told her to give him a call when she got out of jail. Berry showed the card to Cody Skipper, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case. He looked at the card, remarked that the number on the card was indeed the officer's and recommended that the case be dropped, according to Berry. Court records show that the prostitution charges against Francisco were "dismissed in the interests of justice." Now, nearly six months later, district attorney's spokeswoman Rachel Horton says the office may have dropped the case prematurely and will look into filing new charges once the internal investigations are concluded.