SAN DIEGO — A former San Diego police officer was sentenced to over two years behind bars in federal court on Friday for his central role in years-long prostitution scheme run out of illicit massage businesses.

Peter Griffin, 79, pleaded guilty of charges stemming from the conspiracy to operate five businesses in California and Arizona for the sale of commercial sex under the guise of therapeutic massage services, according to a release from the office of U.S. Attorney Tara McGrath.

Prosecutors say that the operation, which ran between 2013 and August 2023, included: incorporating their businesses with state agencies, advertising commercial sexual services online, taking advantage of women to perform these services, and benefiting financially from the illegal enterprises.

“Illicit massage businesses hide in plain sight in many communities in America, including our district,” U.S. Attorney Tara K. McGrath said in the release.  “Operators of these businesses often profit through exploitation. For years, Peter Griffin used his connections as a former police officer for his own criminal profiteering.”

The retired detective, attorney and private investigator left SDPD in 2002. During his tenure with the department, prosecutors say he worked with the Vice Operations Unit — a task force dedicated to dismantling the same kinds of businesses he operated in the nine-year scheme.

According to the U.S. Attorney, Griffin owned and operated the businesses in his network called “Genie Oriental Spa,” “Felicita Spa,” “Blue Green Spa,” “Maple Spa” and “Massage W Spa” alongside three co-defendants — Kyung Sook Hernandez, Yu Hong Tan and Yoo Jin Ott — who managed each location. All were located in the greater San Diego area and Tempe, AZ.

On top of leasing storefronts, prosecutors say Griffin and the other defendants also rented and bought residential properties to use as housing for “employees” and secured credit card processing equipment for the businesses.

“Employees” at each of the businesses — mostly non-English speaking immigrants from Korea and China with limited employment opportunities and financial resources — were pressured to by the defendants to perform the illicit commercial sex services, according to McGrath’s office.

When one employee initially refused to do so, prosecutors say one of the defendants instructed her to “leave [her] morals in China” in order to “make the customers happy.” 

Griffin oversaw nearly every aspect of the illicit businesses, assuming “the role of ‘boss.'”

According to prosecutors, he used his experience and skills acquired through his work in law enforcement and reputation as a former police officer to help the businesses evade authorities, maintain the façade of legitimacy or thwart any official actions against them.

Griffin used his status as a former police officer to instruct and pressure the victims of his scheme to remain quiet about working at the illicit massage business, according to admissions made in his plea agreement.

Among the actions he took to conceal the enterprise from outside law enforcement included an incident where he flashed his badge to a local officer responding to a citizen complaint regarding one of his storefronts.

Prosecutors say Griffin also abused resources he had access to through his private investigator license to obtain personal information about his customers and employees on behalf of the prostitution scheme.

“No one is above the law. I’m appalled that someone who once took an oath to protect our community could prey on the vulnerable,” SDPD Chief of Police David Nisleit said in the release. “I’m proud of our own SDPD officers who helped make this investigation possible and I commend our partner agencies for their diligence in holding Peter Griffin and his accomplices accountable. This is an important step toward justice for the survivors of these crimes.”

Griffin was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison, while his three co-defendants were each sentenced to six months in custody, according to prosecutors.

The defendants faced charges of: conspiracy, interstate and foreign travel or transportation in rid of racketeering; conspiracy to commit wire fraud; engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity; and misprision of a felony.

“Peter Griffin abused and exploited vulnerable women by pressuring them into providing commercial sex for profit while taking advantage of his status in the community,” Chad Plantz, special agent in charge for HSI San Diego, said in the release. “This sentence sends a clear message to those who mistakenly believe they can get away with such repugnant crimes.”

A slew of federal, state and local agencies were involved in the investigation into the enterprise, including the cross-agency San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force, Homeland Security Investigations, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations and the Federal Bureau of Investigations among others.

Authorities encourage anyone who has information about human trafficking to report that information to the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free at 1-888-373-7888, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.