While investigating a sex trafficking ring in Arizona, federal agents engaged in sexual conduct with victims. The initial investigation began in 2016 after allegations of commercial sex taking place in illicit massage businesses were brought to the attention of authorities. In 2018, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) was asked to assist in the investigation after potential victims of sex trafficking were identified. Agent Lon Wigand of HSI oversaw the task force to identify victims and target sex traffickers in the area. At a press conference in September 2018, Wigand was hopeful the federal task force would successfully take down the trafficking ring and assist victims. However, behind closed doors Wigand was leading an unethical and illegal investigation during which federal agents engaged in sex acts with suspected victims. During the investigation, HSI agents documented 17 encounters with women working in the massage businesses. These encounters involved agents paying the women for sex acts.
Police in Lake Havasu City and Bullhead City, where the investigation took place, were told by HSI that undercover agents were allowed to have sex with victims as part of the investigation. Under Arizona law, it is illegal for police officers to engage in sex acts with individuals involved in an investigation. However, HSI policy handbooks circulated to undercover agents included language authorizing illegal activity for the purpose of the investigation, but never mentioned sexual activity explicitly. After undercover agents were found paying for sex acts, HSI allegedly refused to let agents testify. The entire investigation, which was on going for more than three years, was eliminated. All felony charges against the alleged traffickers were dropped.
The evidence of the agents’ behavior coupled with the HSI handbook exposes the corrupt and illegal federal investigative policies that further damage the livelihood of victims and does nothing to end the cycle of exploitation and abuse. After agents in this case were discovered having sex with victims, it was also revealed that HSI had conducted corrupt investigations involving victims of sex trafficking in the past. This pattern of behavior by HSI and involved police agencies is a telling example of the abuses of power and corruption rampant in our justice system. Until officers are properly discouraged from this horrific behavior and ethical investigative tactics are explicitly enforced, victims will continue to view police as a threat. As a result, victims will be hesitant or refuse to involve law enforcement during instances of exploitation and abuse. Without proper law enforcement involvement, sex traffickers will continue to exploit victims and justice will not be served.
Unfortunately, this is not the only time the CSE Institute has reported on abuse of power by police officers and agents engaging in sex acts with persons under investigation. The CSE Institute denounces any investigative tactic that is both illegal and further victimizes individuals trapped in the cycle of sexual exploitation. The CSE Institute encourages all law enforcement agencies to adopt practices and tactics that protect victims instead of putting them at risk. Any official with the power to enforce the law cannot be allowed to use his or her authority to exploit victims by any means. The CSE Institute encourages all law enforcement agencies, both at the state and federal level, to adopt and enforce investigative policies and procedures specific to investigating instances of sex trafficking that prioritizes the safety of victims. All individuals involved in bringing justice for victims should be insistent upon enforcing polices that are both in line with the law and avoid any further damage to victims who should be able to depend on law enforcement for help, not state sanctioned sexual abuse.