Image via Doyle Murphy
FBI agents leave Dojo Pizza on November 12 in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis.
St. Louis cops are putting the squeeze on three single mothers as they try to build a human trafficking investigation against the owner of Dojo Pizza.
In the last two weeks, the women, who all had daughters living at the repurposed Bevo Mill church, have all individually been taken into custody and later set free.
Loren Copp, the target of the investigation, claims detectives are using the catch-and-release busts to pressure the mothers into saying he’s a criminal.
“They know what they did to me was wrong, and now they are trying to strongarm these women by putting them in jail,” Copp said.
The Riverfront Times
published a cover story last week about the mysterious labor trafficking and sexual abuse investigation at the combination karate studio, online school and pizza shop. City building inspectors condemned the Morgan Ford building in October following a police raid, and FBI agents have searched it at least twice since then. Copp was initially hauled away in cuffs and temporarily jailed before he was let go. He has not been charged.
The day after our story hit newsstands, police arrested Lorraine Bala on a traffic warrant. Bala, a Copp critic who was quoted in the RFT
piece, spent the next four days in jail on $200 bond before a St. Louis City Municipal Court judge set a new court date and turned her loose.
See Also: The Curious Case of Dojo Pizza
Tauna Cowin, whose two teen daughters lived with Copp for nine years, was jailed Monday on suspicion of child endangerment and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. She spent 24 hours behind bars before she was released without charges.
Billie Claeys was similarly arrested after a November 30 court appearance and released the next day when the charges didn’t materialize.
Detective Keaton Strong, a lead investigator in the case, arrested Cowin and Claeys, according to the women. Bala couldn’t be reached for comment, and police refused to identify the arresting officer in her case. The RFT
has filed a Missouri Sunshine Law request for records related to the arrests.
Cowin had just made an appearance in Family Court when Strong, flanked by FBI agents, announced he was taking her into custody, her attorney said.
“They didn’t have to do that,” defense attorney Mary Entrup said. “I told them I would bring her in.”
Strong didn’t have an arrest warrant for Cowin, but police are allowed to hold suspects for 24 hours before filing charges. The practice theoretically gives police time to talk to prosecutors about possible charges, but Entrup said they could have easily had that discussion without locking up Cowin. She would have been easy to find if they decided to file charges, she said.
“They just held her for 24 hours while they did their quote unquote investigation,” the attorney said.
Claeys was also leaving a Family Court appearance when Strong tapped her on the shoulder. He took her to a room in the courthouse and told her he was investigating her for child endangerment and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, because she allowed her daughters lived in a dangerous environment at Dojo Pizza with Copp, she said.
Loren Copp suspects police are trying to coerce witnesses into making statements against him.
Claeys, who has struggled with heroin addiction, met Copp in 2013 during a low point in her life. She was preparing to enter an in-patient drug treatment program and needed a place for her girls to stay, she said. She thought about contacting the state but feared if her kids were put into foster care she’d never see them again, even after she was clean. Her girls were friends with Cowin’s daughters, who have lived with Copp for nine years, and they made the introduction. After several discussions, Copp agreed to let them stay while Claeys got her life together.
“I felt like it was a great decision I was making,” Claeys said.
She still thinks that today. The girls were happy and safe, staying on at the karate studio/pizzeria after Claeys relapsed and was incarcerated, she said. She would check in on them as often as she could and never saw any problems.
Claeys claims Strong told her Copp preyed on vulnerable mothers such as herself, exploiting their desperation to take their kids away. He asked her to make a statement and kept her locked up overnight when she refused, she said. She told him only that Copp ran a good operation and her girls would vouch for him too. Strong told her he’d be back the next morning to see if she’d changed her mind, she said.
“I felt like he was trying to scare me and make me think I was going to stay there,” Claeys said.
But the next day, she still wouldn't talk and was released after her 24 hours had expired, she said.
Strong didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Claeys said she’s now sober, attending drug treatment classes and trying to comply with the demands of social services workers as she tries to rebuild her life and regain custody of her children. It’s a delicate balance, and she’s terrified it could all fall apart if Strong decides to lock her up again.
“I’m trying to do what’s right, show up and follow orders,” Claeys said. “And at any time, this could drop down on me.”
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