by Marisa Mecke ’21 (she/ her), Staff Writer
Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of physical violence
While Davidson students were away for the extended winter break, a federal jury in Charlotte convicted Thuy Tien Luong, 37, the owner of the Luxury Nail Salon on Jetton Street, of forced labor for her abuse of an employee, according to a press release from the United States Department of Justice (DoJ) on January 8th. WSOC Charlotte reports that officials said the 57-year-old victim is related to suspect Tien Luong.
The crimes were initially uncovered in the summer of 2018, when the victim, identified by the initials K.D. in court documents, according to The Charlotte Observer, reported a “particularly violent assault” as stated by the DoJ. WSOC Charlotte states that this assault entailed Luong and her boyfriend, Nip Mihn Tsi forcing the victim into a car and “[driving] around” while they beat the victim. The victim sustained the injuries of a broken nose, blackened eyes, and a split lip, among others.
In an email interview with The Davidsonian, Davidson Chief of Police Penny Dunn stated that when the victim contacted the police department to report an assault, the patrol officer “called for a detective to assist with the interview and investigation process” and “also contacted Medics to provide medical care to the victim.” While Dunn reports the victim was initially reluctant to accept medical care, he credits Officer Meghan O’Brien with being “a calming presence and [reassuring] the victim she would stay with her during the initial medical evaluation.”
WSOC Charlotte reported in July of 2018 that warrants obtained by the network detailed charges of human trafficking, involuntary servitude, and conspiracy. The warrant claimed that Luong Tsi, had “coerced and intimidated”’ the victim into working at the nail salon for months. The warrant also claimed that the two suspects “used tools to stab the victim repeatedly from March 1 to June 20.” At the time, WSOC relayed that the suspects’ attorney called the claims against his clients “bogus.”
Court documents demonstrate a detailed account of sustained physical, mental, and emotional abuse. The DoJ press release states that evidence presented at trial established that Luong physically assaulted the victim on several occasions, including “pulling her hair out, stabbing her with nail salon tools, and pouring acetone on her head.” WSOC Charlotte explains that acetone is a solvent used to remove nail polish and was applied to open wounds in this incident.
The DoJ also stated that Luong threatened to tell the victim’s family negative information about her in order to ruin the victim’s relationship with her family. The Charlotte Observer added to this claim, stating that Luong also forced the worker to record videos saying “insulting things about her own family, which Luong threatened to use against her.”
Luong coerced K.D. to perform forced labor at her nail salon by falsely stating the victim owed Luong a debt of $180,000, alleging the victim’s poor work performance caused this dollar amount in losses to the nail salon. The DoJ press release documents that Luong “even executed a debt contract with the victim in the amount of $180,000” and threatened to send the victim to jail if she did not repay the amount in full.
The 2021 DoJ press release details that the case is being investigated by Homeland Security Investigations of Charlotte with assistance from the Davidson and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Departments. It is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimlani M. Ford of the Western District of North Carolina and Trial Attorney Maryam Zhuravitsky of the Civil Rights Division’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit.
This type of investigation, according to Chief Dunn, requires teamwork and cooperation among multiple agencies and levels of jurisdiction. During the initial reporting to the Davidson Police Department, Dunn stated, “The patrol supervisor and detective realized this case involved much more than an assault and was meeting elements of both state and federal statutes for forced labor, indentured servitude, and could expand to include other victims, suspects and possibly other locations.”
Dunn explained that “Detective Vernon Siders (retired) reached out to Homeland Security due to their expertise in federal cases involving this type of crime. [The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department] was of great assistance by sending an officer to translate during interviews. Detective Siders also communicated with the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office about the case.”
Dunn concluded that the “ultimate goal” of the investigation is to “charge the suspects for criminal statutes that best fit the crime, evidence and provide the best avenue of prosecution for the victims.” While the case is complicated, Dunn says that “There were no problems,” but rather “excellent communication, and everyone [was] willing to work together towards one objective – justice.”
The Davidson Police Department, according to Chief Dunn, receives training annually, but for human trafficking cases, they seek out classes through regional partners. He said that class sizes in these courses can be limited but that the department tries to have “one or two officers or investigators” attend a class on human trafficking whenever possible. While the department seeks out this training, Dunn noted that in his experience with the Davidson Police Department since arriving in July of 2017, the department has not handled a human trafficking case. However, Dunn stated that he had experience working this type of case with a prior agency.
Since the Davidson Police Department has not dealt with a human trafficking case in recent history, many local residents were surprised by the case. Davidson student Morgan Dunnigan ‘21 spoke with The Davidsonian over the phone about her experience at Luxury Nail Salon. Dunnigan began going to the salon in the fall of 2017, her freshman year. She says the salon was recommended to her by some family and friends who live in the Davidson area.
In Dunnigan’s sophomore year, she told her friend she was going to get her nails done. Her friend said “‘Oh, I hope it’s not Luxury Nails,’” Dunnigan said, “like she was joking.” Her friend then informed Dunnigan about the human trafficking case.
“It just kind of freaked me out,” Dunnigan said. After learning about the case, she “didn’t really feel comfortable going back.” She decided to switch her nail appointments to a different nail salon closer to campus.
The DoJ reports that a sentencing date has not been scheduled; however, it will occur before the District Court Judge Kenneth D. Bell. Luong faces a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment and must pay mandatory restitution to the victim according to the Department of Justice.
“I’ve been aware that [abuse] was an issue in the industry, but I was not expecting it to happen here,” Dunnigan reflected. She said that learning about the human trafficking case at Luxury Nail Salon was “pretty shocking,” adding, “I feel like stuff like that doesn’t happen in Davidson.” However, she said, “I do know that situations like that are more common in nail salons” and that she has heard of a lot of nail salons with situations where employees’ tips were being withheld and similar abuse.
Chief Dunn highlighted the importance of media and community in this case. Just as Dunnigan learned about the case from a friend, Dunn stated that public awareness is important.
“Once a story like this becomes known, the public becomes more observant and reports suspicious behavior,” he said.
Dunnigan’s reflections on her experiences at the salon suggest that appearances may be deceiving. “I never suspected anything,” she said.“They were always very nice to me and did a good job.”
Luxury Nail Salon has closed since the onset of the human trafficking investigation and conviction. The business space on Jetton Street that was previously occupied by Luxury Nail Salon has been filled by Lina Nails Spa as of August 2019, the owners of which have no affiliation with the previous business.