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Troopers' trysts raise eyebrows

Friday, September 07, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ALTOONA -- There are many things law officers endure in pursuit of justice. Take, for instance, oral sex, offered by a local masseuse at $60 a go.

A pair of undercover state troopers readily admit in arrest papers that they partook of the service, with the commonwealth picking up the tab. Then, they say, they arrested the masseuse before futilely hunting evidence to implicate management of an Altoona-area massage parlor where she worked.

But the troopers' trysts were decidedly off-putting for Blair County prosecutors and members of the state police hierarchy, who plan to fill a gap in their rule book by telling troopers that sex in the pursuit of justice is forbidden.

"We didn't recommend beforehand that they take that action," Douglas Keating, Blair County's first assistant district attorney, said yesterday. "All I remember is saying to them, 'We don't recommend that you do that.' "

"Certainly, we wouldn't encourage taking those steps because it doesn't look good," said state police Lt. Michael Hample, crime section commander at the Hollidaysburg, Blair County, barracks where the troopers are stationed.

But Maj. Ralph Periandi, statewide director of the state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, said, "Their heart was in the right place."

The troopers face no discipline, Hample said.

The episode unfolded at Garden Health Spa, a one-story medical office-turned-massage parlor, 200 yards from the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home and Blair County Christian Home. The place is open from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Past the closed-circuit camera watching the front door, decals on an inside window say that the place takes MasterCard, VISA and American Express -- and boasts support for the Western Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.

Hample said undercover troopers were sent to the establishment July 19 after police were tipped off that prostitutes were working there.

After $50 massage sessions, things got cozy for the troopers. Police say masseuse Joung Lonnie Cho, 44, recently arrived from Daly City, Calif., then offered to perform oral sex for $60.

After the troopers accepted the offer, backup officers moved in and Cho was arrested, according to an affidavit. She pleaded guilty to prostitution, was fined $458 by District Justice Patrick Jones and left town.

Police went through the place with a search warrant an hour after the arrest, trying to see if the marked bills paid to Cho wound up in the pockets of the owner of Garden Health Spa, a first step in making more arrests.

Three weeks ago, Blair County Judge Thomas Peoples ordered massage parlor owner Pyong Pok Routley to forfeit $1,045 seized during the search, figuring it was money gained through prostitution. But prosecutors decided they had no evidence to go further, Keating said.

"That part of the investigation is closed," Hample said.

What is just starting is the flap over whether the troopers were just being troupers when they accepted Cho's offer. Hample says they were simply trying to get money into Cho's hands that might be traced to higher-ups.

"It's not a lark where they were trying to get a little free sex," Hample said. "I know these individuals were well-intentioned individuals. There are no clear-cut guidelines in the law, and no clear-cut guidelines in state police policy."

That much seems true.

State police are weeks away from regulations banning sex "except in a lifesaving situation or where officers' lives are at stake," Periandi said. But it remains murky whether a state trooper using a prostitute during an undercover investigation is lawbreaking, said Dennis Giever, chairman of the criminology department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

And if the tactic was to get the money into Cho's hands, there might not have been a good Plan B, said Giever.

"But prostitution's not a very serious charge," Giever said, "and her employer probably would have said, 'We'll pay the fine.' "

In the end, all this is going to "raise some eyebrows," Keating said.

Like at the Garden Health Spa yesterday, for instance. There a masseuse, who said her name was Sunae, sat on an overstuffed couch in the waiting room and expressed a little citizen indignation.

"If they were real cops," she said, "they shouldn't have let themselves be exposed. When she offers him oral sex, he should stop her. He's a lawman. Isn't that what lawmen do?"

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