Facebook post leads to more charges for accused Murrysville massage parlor owner
Despite arguing that a social media post accusing someone of being a “liar” does not amount to a crime, a Mt. Pleasant woman accused of running four massage parlors in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties was ordered to stand trial for intimidating a witness Friday after allegedly making such a claim in a Facebook post.
Hui Xu, 44, of Mt. Pleasant, was arrested on multiple criminal charges March 22 after a year-long investigation by state and Murrysville police alleging that the parlors she ran were part of a human trafficking ring, where workers were forced to perform sex acts. A statewide grand jury alleged Xu owned and operated four Tokyo Spas in Monroeville and Murrysville.
Xu is the widow of Henry “Sonny” Caruso, 49, a veteran guard at the Westmoreland County Prison who committed suicide in November after being suspended from his job as a result of the ongoing investigation.
Xu was released from the Washington County Jail on April 22 to be on home electronic monitoring, but Murrysville police Officer Matt Panigal testified at a preliminary hearing Friday that, within three days of her release, she was making threatening social media posts about a co-defendant on her Facebook page from her Shady Street home. She was arrested and ordered back to the Washington County Jail without bond.
Panigal testified Friday under questioning by Senior Deputy Attorney General Katherine A. Wymard that Xu directed complaints on social media toward a co-defendant Robert Delano Yerick, 84, of Delmont, who was described as an administrator and handyman at Xu’s businesses by the grand jury.
Panigal testified before visiting Senior District Judge Eileen Conroy of Allegheny County that Xu said in her posts that Yerick was now a cooperating witness and would testify against her.
“She referred to Mr. Yerick as a liar and a beast. She also posted photographs of herself and Robert Yerick on her Facebook page,” Panigal said.
Panigal noted that Xu stated in the photographs that Yerick’s nickname is “Russian” and, until she learned that he was going to testify against her, “treated him like my father.”
Panigal testified that, after Xu was arrested April 25, she admitted making the posts.
“She said she was sorry, wanted her cellphone back so she could delete the posts and I could drive her back home,” Panigal said.
On cross-examination, Xu’s attorney, Emily Smarto of Greensburg, questioned Panigal about whether Xu made any physical or death threats against Yerick. Panigal indicated Xu made no such posts.
“In today’s world, people are called a liar every day on social media. That’s considered freedom of expression, not intimidation of a witness,” Smarto said.
“Your honor, in today’s world, if we allow a case like this to move forward … we’ll be (in court) all the time for these things. I could see if someone puts dead mice or manure on someone’s door step or makes a telephone call threatening “to kill you if you testify against me,” but calling someone a liar in a social media post, that does not rise to the level of intimidation of a witness,” Smarto said.
Wymard countered that the social media posts were threatening. She noted that Xu was on home electronic monitoring “and used all the resources she had available at the time in an attempt to intimidate Mr. Yerick.”
“She identified him as a cooperating witness for the state, called him a liar and a beast … who knows what she would have done if she was out of custody for a longer period? I don’t know how that’s not an attempt to intimidate a witness,” Wymard said.
Conway concurred and ordered Xu to stand trial in Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court. Last month, she waived to court multiple charges of operating a corrupt organization, criminal conspiracy, dealing in illegal proceeds, intent to promote prostitution, operating a house of prostitution and trafficking individuals for financial benefit.
Smarto, who pleaded not guilty on behalf of Xu to the intimidation charge yesterday, said after the hearing she intends to file a motion next week in common pleas court to have the intimidation complaint dismissed and have Xu released from custody.
In addition to Xu and Yerick, Huican Wei, 47, of Flushing, N.Y., operator of Judy’s Oriental Massage Parlor in Murrysville; and and Chang Yu Chen, 51, of Monroeville, who is described as a handyman, also are awaiting trial in the massage parlor operations.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-850-2860, [email protected] or via Twitter .