Prosecutors drop charges in massage parlor case Move follows controversy about police behavior in Howard County sting

March 30, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

Defense attorneys -- seeking to embarrass Howard County police as a result of their controversial massage parlor investigations -- scored a big victory yesterday.

Just as a trial was about to begin for two of the women accused of giving sexual massages, prosecutors yesterday backed down and dropped the charges in Howard Circuit Court.

The decision not to prosecute -- urged by county Police Chief James N. Robey -- was a major defeat for the police department.

The county department ended its 7-month sting of six county massage parlors in October with charges against 13 women, controversy about the propriety of police actions during the investigation and a lot of potential for embarrassment.

"I have been confident since the beginning of this case that the State's Attorney's office would never put these facts before a jury," said defense attorney Clarke F. Ahlers, who represented the women, Hyang Kyu Smart, 36, of Boyds and Ok Chu Herdrich, 43, formerly of Fulton.

The charges against the two women were dropped yesterday after a judge ruled that their defense attorneys could call as a witness the wife of one of the undercover officers involved in the investigation.

Police had maintained that all officers involved had sought prior approval from their wives. The defense said it would show that an officer lied to his commander by saying he had his wife's approval -- and therefore may have lied about other aspects of the investigation.

The defense also tried to force another office to submit a nude photo of himself as evidence in the trial -- a motion that was denied by Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr.

The prospect of the officer's wife taking the stand was too much for Chief Robey. "Enough is enough," he said. "I'm not going to subject the wives or children of police officers to that possibility."

But he again defended the investigation and said he would not rule out another such one in the future -- even though he acknowledged asking the State's Attorney's office to drop the ,, charges.

State's Attorney Marna McLendon said prosecutors and police witnesses were ready to go to trial, but she said she yielded to Chief Robey's request.

Cases against nine women charged in the investigation are pending in Howard District Court. Cases against two other women have been placed on that court's inactive docket and could be dropped next year.

According to police reports from the investigation, officers gained evidence of illegal sexual acts at the massage parlors by allowing the massage technicians to touch them sexually.

In motions hearings, Mr. Ahlers said he would challenge the credibility of one investigator, Sgt. Dennis Coon. He said he would show that the sergeant never told his wife about the investigation -- though police brass said all married officers involved in the investigation had gained approval from their spouses.

Judge Kane said prosecutors would be able to call her to the stand, possibly out of the jury's presence.

Defense lawyers also sought to subpoena a nude photograph of Cpl. Merritt Bender. The corporal wrote in his report that Ms. Smart "gasped" when he undressed.

"Corporal Bender declares that the defendant, upon seeing him unclothed, stared at his genitals and gasped," Mr. Ahlers wrote in the motion for the subpoena, which was denied. "Upon information and belief, Corporal Bender's body would not ordinarily result in a woman staring or gasping."

Pub Date: 3/30/96

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