'We never saw a female leave the business': Pocatello detectives testify about investigation into suspected brothel - East Idaho News
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‘We never saw a female leave the business’: Pocatello detectives testify about investigation into suspected brothel

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POCATELLO — A preliminary hearing for a woman accused of running a brothel disguised as a massage parlor began Tuesday afternoon but will not be completed until next week.

Liyun Ma, 43, appeared before Magistrate Judge David Penrod, who will determine whether probable cause exists to justify a jury trial. However, the hearing was not completed due to technical issues and translation-involved delays. It is scheduled to resume on April 12.

RELATED | Woman running local massage parlor arrested on suspicion of human trafficking

Ma is charged with felonies for procurement of prostitutes and harboring prostitutes. The Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating other potential charges, according to Deputy Prosecutor Erin Tognetti, who is prosecuting this case.

Tognetti could not identify the extent of crimes the office is considering.

Testifying in the hearing Tuesday were two Pocatello police officers involved with the investigation into and search of Ma and Lucky 7 Massage Parlor — detectives Matthew Shutes and Dane Eborn.

Shutes said from the witness stand that the investigation was launched after the Pocatello Police Department Street Crimes Unit returned from a training seminar in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

During the seminar, he said, his unit learned that human-trafficking rings often use massage parlors as fronts. So, upon their return from the seminar, the unit investigated several local massage parlors and found issues of concern at Lucky 7.

As part of the investigation, which the street crimes unit launched in September, officers watched people entering and exiting the business at the 300 block of South 4th Avenue and performed traffic stops on patrons as they left. Shutes said that throughout the investigation, officers noticed something unusual about the parlor’s clientele.

Lucky 7 Massage Parlor, before and after March 6 search warrant
Lucky 7 Massage before and after March 6, when officers served a search warrant for suspected solicitation. | Courtesy Jennifer Hines

“There were a lot of cars that came and went during the day,” Shutes said. “We never saw a female leave the business.”

“Every single person” officers saw left the building, he continued, was male.

Eborn, another detective with the street crimes unit, offered the same testimony — saying he saw men enter and exit the business, but never women.

Officers obtained search warrants for the business, Ma, her Mercedes Benz SUV and her bank information — including a safety deposit box.

Inside the safety deposit box, Eborn said, officers found $105,000 in cash and more than $13,000 in money orders.

Prior to serving the search warrant for the business, Eborn went inside undercover — or, as he put it, “dressed down.”

Inside, he said, he spoke briefly with Ma, who was walking a patron out of the building from inside one of the massage rooms.

Eborn said he requested a massage and Ma asked if he had an appointment. When he said he did not, Eborn said, Ma told him he needed an appointment and asked for his cell phone number.

The detective then asked if he could get “something more than a massage.” Ma’s response was to inform him that she did not speak English. She then played a voice message from her phone that offered the same information officers reported being on paper signs inside the building — that patrons should save the business’s number in their phone as the “car interior accessory store” and that they would get a message informing them that there was an “update of car interior accessories” when new girls were available.

RELATED | Prosecutor: Woman accused of running Pocatello brothel presented ‘girls’ as car accessories

Eborn said, at that point, he initiated the search from officers.

While searching the business, officers found a patron inside one of the rooms with a woman wearing a dress Eborn said could be described as a “sexy maid outfit” one might see on Halloween.

He said officers took her from the building for interview, but that she had to retrieve her bra before leaving.

With assistance from a translator at Idaho State University, the woman told officers Ma was known to the other women at the parlor as “Boss,” and that women at the parlor were required to follow Ma’s instructions — which included demands of removing clothing and sexually touching clients. The woman also said that she was brought from China by way of New York.

While searching the building, Shutes said, officers found bags and boxes of unopened condoms. In the back portion of the building, they found what Shutes described as what appeared to be living quarters — with sections created using curtain dividers, massage tables pushed together to make what he believed to be beds, and pots and pans.

In a Mercedes officers only saw Ma drive, police found more than $3,000 cash, a box of unopened condoms and another box of opened condom wrappers.

EastIdahoNews.com asked Tognetti before a previous hearing for this case if the Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office is looking into charges of human trafficking against Ma. She could not provide a direct answer at the time.

When the preliminary hearing resumes next week, other officers and at least one civilian witness are expected to testify. In addition to Pocatello police, searches of the business, Mercedes and bank information were performed by Idaho State Police detectives and forensic technicians.

At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, Penrod will determine whether to bind the charges against Ma over to the district court level. If charges are bound over, Ma will be arraigned into the district court and — if she pleads not guilty — a trial date will be set.

Though Ma has been charged with these crimes, it does not necessarily mean she committed them. Everyone is presumed innocent until they are proven guilty.

If she is found guilty, Ma would face up to 20 years in prison.