Flagstaff officials say county prosecutors advised a massage operation

FLAGSTAFF, AZ — City leaders in Flagstaff told ABC15 that a month-long investigation into a massage parlor was advised by the Coconino County District Attorney’s Office.

As ABC15 first revealed, two undercover Flagstaff cops each visited at least five different massage parlors.

In each company, they documented how they took off their pants and allowed themselves to be petted, as part of the pre-planned survey.

Defense attorneys and law enforcement experts tell ABC15 that Arizona state law clearly describes this as illegal.

“In Arizona, you cannot exchange money for sex while on duty. It’s a crime,” said Brad Rideout, an Arizona defense attorney and former prosecutor.

Rideout and Many Other Lawyers Point to State Law 13-1412which states:

A peace officer commits unlawful sexual behavior by knowingly engaging in sexual contact… with anyone in his or her custody or… under investigation.

The two officers also said in their 2019 police reports that employees inside could be victims of human and sex trafficking. Trafficking experts wonder why agents would have undergone the sexual acts if they suspected that the women doing the massages were potential victims.

“As soon as I got excited, I immediately started asking about the money and how much. And like I said, I never made one, so I was pretty nervous and I didn’t know where to stop, so I was trying to stop him quickly,” Officer Dustin Eberhardt said, in a video deposition for one of the cases.

Flagstaff Mayor Paul Deasy told ABC15 that department officers did not figure out the evidence collection methods themselves.

Deasy says Coconino County prosecutors helped craft the plan.

“It’s there that [the officers] were taking their advice on how to approach this,” Mayor Deasy said. “The senior assistant county attorney has determined that this is the way to go.”

ABC15 obtained an internal email that the senior assistant city attorney sent to other Flagstaff executives the day after our initial story aired.

In the email, the attorney says that in 2019, now-retired Deputy Chief County Attorney Jane Nicoletti Jones, “…told investigators that she needed the overt act of the suspect touching/grabbing the undercover officers’ genitals…in order to lay certain charges against them and…because of the barrier language between the suspect and the undercover officer.”

It is unclear what role County Attorney Bill Ring played in the operation, the subsequent prosecutions and the recent dismissal of at least five cases.

Ring has been the elected Coconino County prosecutor since January 2017, so he was in charge when his chief deputy allegedly gave that directive.

“There are certainly many people involved who should be held accountable for how this situation was handled,” Mayor Deasy said.

The Coconino County District Attorney’s Office once responded to repeated emails from ABC15.

An executive aide said the county attorney would not comment due to ongoing lawsuits. ABC15 then asked for comment on the cases that have already been dismissed, but we did not hear back.

In the weeks following the initial report:

– Flagstaff Police Chief Dan Mussleman was placed on administrative leave. He returned to work after three weeks of absence.

– The city manager has hired an outside investigator to look into the operation.

– The State Police Oversight Board received a complaint.

– And the Mayor asked “transparency”.

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