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.
Bernal says that the internal affairs investigation determined that Hall gave the woman his work number because he wanted to see if she'd be interested in posing as a confidential informant for the department. Because he did not give the woman his home or mobile number, investigators concluded that he did not violate departmental policy.
After she was released from jail, Francisco also provided her attorney with a written report of her encounter with the vice officer, which included several salacious details, that was turned over to investigators. She writes that she rubbed her breasts on his back, rubbed his penis and took a shower with him, before he placed her into custody. Bernal says that the footage reviewed by the investigators shows that the woman did rub her breast on the officer, but she did not take a shower with him. She only stood outside the shower as he washed himself.
The arrest reports from the Acapulco Spa provide a rare glimpse into the unseemly world that vice officers inhabit and the maze of dilemmas that await them. To make an arrest, officers often have to act as sleazy as the typical patron of a shady massage parlor. Sergeant Curtis Braziel posed as a customer of the spa on May 27, shortly before McPherson was arrested. A woman led him to a private room where he had his pick of several different employees. After he choose Kristen King, a 19-year-old California native, she instructed him to get undressed, place his clothes on the armoire and sit on the couch.
He told her that he just took Viagra and wanted to "get the money out of the way" before it kicked in.
"What do you want?" the 19-year-old woman asked him.
"I want a blow job."
"Two hundred will get you everything you want."
"Then I want to fuck you doggie-style."
"That will be $50 extra if you want to fuck."
Braziel later arrested her for prostitution.
Many of the arrest reports suggest that the officers' conduct may have been at least partially justified since the employees at the spa took a hands-on approach to see if the men were law enforcement. One woman told a plainclothes vice officer to put his clothes on the armoire. The woman left the room and came back to find the officer still clad in his underwear. She came up behind him, placed her hands on his penis and said, according to the prosecution report, "You won't be a cop, would you?" He said he wasn't, took off his underwear and laid facedown on the massage table.
Other reports also show that the women wouldn't even begin discussing exchanging sex for cash until the plainclothes officers removed their garments. Still, some of the defense lawyers involved in these cases say that the officers prolonged their experience after they gathered incriminating evidence.
"Once the offer is made, you've made your case," Berry says. "There is no reason to get a hand job."
Asked about the X-rated massages his officers received, Bernal acknowledged that the department is placed in a difficult situation. "A female rubbing her breasts on an officer is not something we seek out, but I don't want to go into specifics of what we can and cannot do because once you start printing that we won't be able to make any cases."--Matt Pulle
November is sweeps month and this Thursday at 9 p.m., Fox 4 News airs a scathing piece on the saga of Emily Dowdy, a Hillsboro woman serving a sentence of 40 years in an Oklahoma prison ("Oklahoma Railroad," July 21, 2005). Dowdy was convicted of vehicular manslaughter in the 1999 death of Ryan Brewer, 20-year-old son of an Oklahoma City police captain. The prosecution accused Dowdy, then an architecture student at the University of Oklahoma, of driving drunk. Dowdy's defense: She wasn't drunk but under the influence of the date-rape drug GHB.
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News reporter Jeff Crilley got a TV camera into the maximum security prison where Dowdy is serving time. A ruling from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on her request for a new trial could come any day. In her appeal, Dowdy's attorney Mark Henrickson has argued that she did not receive a fair trial because of repeated and egregious prosecutorial misconduct. Portraying Dowdy as a rich bitch party girl, prosecutors at one point elicited testimony from a witness that Dowdy appeared in a newspaper photo taken after the accident at a tailgating party holding a beer can. The photo actually showed Dowdy holding a hot dog bun.
If she is granted a new trial, it will be Dowdy's fourth time to face Oklahoma County justice. The pattern has been remarkably consistent. A judge declared Dowdy's first trial a mistrial due to prosecutorial misconduct. After a second trial, Dowdy received 20 years in prison, but the verdict was overturned on appeal because the judge refused to allow her the GHB defense. The appeal of Dowdy's third trial, when she received 40 years in prison, accuses the judge--married to an OKC police officer--of favoring the prosecution.
"It's such a sad story," Crilley says. "What TV does best is allow you to see into Emily's eyes and see who this person is. If she's right, there's someone out there who is just as responsible for this car wreck, and they haven't spent a day in jail."
Crilley describes Dowdy as "aged," no longer the bright-eyed college student she once was. "She's spent a couple of years in hell, and she doesn't belong there," Crilley says. "It confirmed something I suspected from doing stories about people in prison. Prosecutors have a nice machine going. Their job is to prosecute people. It was such a slam dunk case as they presented it to the jury they didn't have to show the jury the photograph. It was enough to talk about the photo. If you don't get a great lawyer, especially in Oklahoma, you're in trouble." --Glenna Whitley