ST. MARTIN, MS (WLOX) - An emotional Yeon Sook Hwang broke down in tears as she entered a guilty plea in federal court to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. The 41-year-old managed a massage parlor in St. Martin that was reportedly a front for a prostitution operation.
Hwang initially pleaded not guilty, but decided to plead guilty as part of a plea agreement that dropped other charges against her. She now faces a maximum 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Judge Sul Ozerden presided over the nearly two-hour hearing in federal court this morning. The government outlined what evidence and witnesses it would bring, had the case gone to trial.
Prosecutor Annette Williams said a taxi driver would testify about transporting young women from the airport to the spa. That same driver delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars in bank deposits on behalf of Hwang and others.
The total layered cash transactions coming from the operation amounted to $924,188 over a roughly one-year period.
Williams said if the case had gone to trial, the government was prepared to show that this spa was indeed a front for illegal prostitution, based upon online reviews from customers who received sex services at the spa and then wrote in detail about what was available and for how much money.
Those customers also identified Hwang, who was known as Jackie, as the spa manager.
The plea agreement will recommend less than the maximum 20-year sentence, but defense attorney Jim Davis would not provide any details.
It was revealed during Thursday's hearing that this is the second plea agreement offered by the government in the case. Williams told the court this second offer was "more favorable" for the defendant.
"The government had facts that were hard to dispute in this case, and we knew we were going to have trouble getting around some of them," said Davis. "They made us an offer which was something she could live with. If you could tell during the plea, my client was very remorseful. This, emotionally, really affected her."
The sentencing hearing is set for Thursday, Sept. 1, at 9 a.m. in Gulfport federal court.
There may also be state charges related to this case, Jackson County District Attorney Tony Lawrence told us.
"The Jackson County grand jury heard evidence in this case, and the results cannot be released at this time," said Lawrence.