Utah man accused of running prostitution ring sues police, argues allegations were racist, ruined his life

The mass arrest ended as a “mass embarrassment” for police when charges were dropped, the lawsuit alleges.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police cars near the American Fork Police Department, on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. A Utah man accused of trafficking women for sex is suing the department, alleging the since-dropped charges were a fallacy that stemmed from the arresting officer’s “stereotypical generalizations regarding ‘Asian culture.'"

A Utah man accused of trafficking women for an international sex ring is suing the police department that arrested him, alleging the since-dropped charges were a fallacy that stemmed from the arresting officer’s “stereotypical generalizations regarding ‘Asian culture.’”

When Joseph Ferreri was arrested in February 2021, the former Utah state prison employee’s mugshot — along with the faces of five massage parlor employees, including his wife — were circulated on local news, the complaint states. Ferreri lost his job and began working in a coal mine. He was ostracized in Lindon, where he lived. He lost his health insurance. His marriage nearly ended.

“Joe Ferreri’s life was in ruins — and all for nothing,” the lawsuit states. “Charges were dropped nine months later.”

The lawsuit alleges that Ferreri’s only “crime” was being “married to a Chinese woman” who worked at massage businesses, where he would drop her off and pick her up from work.

“That was it,” the lawsuit states. “Knowing that millions of men do the same thing every day, and wanting a career-boosting arrest, the local officer in charge of the ‘investigation’ [Shawn Lott] embellished, omitted, and made up facts to paint Joe Ferreri as an international sex trafficker.”

Court documents show Ferreri’s case was dismissed without prejudice in December 2021, after prosecutors and Ferreri’s defense attorneys agreed the move was necessary “in the interest of justice.”

Cases against the five women charged alongside Ferreri, including his wife, Ju Ying Wang, also were dismissed “in the interest of justice,” court records show.

Ferreri’s attorney Karra Porter said she wasn’t sure why prosecutors decided to drop Ferreri’s case.

“I could make an educated guess,” she said. “The very next day, they were going to have to actually present evidence to support the arrest. They didn’t have any. So they just dropped it.”

Neither American Fork nor the city’s police department responded to multiple requests for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune regarding the case.

Massage parlor investigations

The investigation into Ferreri reportedly began in December 2020, after a “concerned citizen” saw Ferreri’s truck pick up a “Chinese girl” from a local massage parlor called Sunflower Massage and drive to a home in Lindon, according to a search warrant affidavit quoted in the lawsuit.

Months before, police began looking into massage parlors after receiving an anonymous tip that some such businesses, including Sunflower, had listings on a website where patrons reviewed illicit massage parlors, a probable cause statement said.

“The complainant stated in his complaint that all you would need to do is send a male in the parlor, become naked, and as the masseuse begins to massage, she will touch you inappropriately,” Lott wrote in a probable cause statement. “If you do not complain she will continue and even make offers for more.”

Before arresting Ferreri and others, police performed “John stops” on customers leaving these massage parlors, and Lott wrote that each patron “acknowledge[d] there are ‘happy endings’ offered to customers.”

Officers had also gone undercover into Sunflower and Relax Wood in October 2020 and February 2021, where they were allegedly offered sex acts in exchange for money. Lott wrote that officers denied these solicitations, but were able to identify masseuses based on these encounters.

Lott noted in a February 2021 search warrant, quoted in the lawsuit, that detectives had seen Ferreri’s truck at another local massage parlor, Relax Wood.

Lott wrote in that document that “most, if not all, Asian massage businesses operate the same,” adding that it wasn’t “uncommon for trafficked girls to be dropped off and picked up by someone other than the business owner” in order to “thwart law enforcement investigations.”

Officers pulled Ferreri over on Feb. 4, 2021 as he drove home from work and arrested him. According to the probable cause statement, Ferreri allegedly told police he was “suspicious” his wife was working at an illicit massage parlor and had done so before, but continued to pick her up and drop her off because she was his wife and she needed transportation.

Police booked him into jail on suspicion of a misdemeanor count of aiding prostitution and a felony count of pattern of unlawful activity.

A week later, prosecutors upgraded those offenses to felony counts of human trafficking, money laundering, aggravated exploitation of prostitution and pattern of unlawful activity when they filed charges.

An arrest and a series of alleged lies

The day Ferreri was arrested, officers brought him to a police station to “chat,” according to the lawsuit, which referenced audio captured from Lott’s body camera.

Ferreri told Lott, “I will cooperate 100%, if I can get a lawyer.”

Lott responded, “And I can respect that.”

“Full disclosure,” Lott continued, “if you’re being straight with me then I have no intention of taking you to jail today. But, if you’re requesting a lawyer be present for you, I’m not going to have a lawyer while we’re talking. Full disclosure. But also understand if I don’t think you’re being straight with me, then could you go to jail today? Yes. I do have sufficient evidence to book you into jail.”

Ferreri first spoke with Lott just after 3 p.m. that day. After speaking with Lott a few times — and requesting an attorney multiple times — Ferreri was taken from the police station to jail at around 10:30 p.m., according to jail records cited in the lawsuit.

He was not given the opportunity to contact an attorney at either location, the lawsuit states.

Despite Ferreri saying he would cooperate, Lott wrote in a probable cause statement justifying the arrest that Ferreri “lied multiple times” to officers during the interview and “would not cooperate despite having a search warrant.”

Ferreri couldn’t have been uncooperative about the search warrant because he wasn’t at home when it was served, the lawsuit states. It also asserts Ferreri did not lie to police.

The lawsuit alleges multiple other mischaracterizations, including that Lott implied Ferreri’s marriage was illegitimate — details Porter said could have been clarified when Lott spoke with Ferreri’s employer earlier that day, or by checking with the vital records office in Texas, where Ferreri and Wang married in 2017.

“It would have taken 30 seconds,” Porter said. “You’re already on the phone with the prison. Ask about his family.”

Additionally, Lott referred to then-46-year-old Wang as a “Chinese girl” in police documents and called the businesses’ other employees “girls,” although none were under 18, the complaint states.

Porter said that language was chosen to “imply he’s with some minor.” Lott also relied on “stereotypical generalizations” about massage parlors, Asian women and Asian culture — with no reference to specific businesses — to build his case, the lawsuit said.

“Lott targeted Joe based solely on Joe’s association with a Chinese woman who worked at a licensed massage business, despite an utter lack of any evidence of criminal conduct by Joe,” according to the lawsuit.

The “misrepresentations and omissions” had a real effect on Ferreri, according to the lawsuit.

The aftermath

The day of Ferreri’s arrest, local news stations described it as a “major prostitution bust” and said it was “likely part of a larger human trafficking network,” according to the lawsuit.

“This is a big one,” one station broadcast announced, the lawsuit states.

Ferreri lost his prison job on Feb. 19, 2021. He had worked there 13 years, more than half of the 20 years required to receive a pension.

In losing his job at the prison and working through a temporary staffing agency, he also lost his health insurance. More than a year after this arrest, he learned his “bad knee” was caused by a tumor, the lawsuit states. He has since been diagnosed with diabetes and had a heart attack.

He has tried three times to return to his job at the prison since the charges were dropped, but was rejected each time, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges multiple violations of Ferreri’s constitutional rights, including his Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure, his Sixth Amendment rights to legal counsel and his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection and benefit under the law.

American Fork has not filed a formal response to the complaint as of Monday afternoon, and no court dates had yet been scheduled.