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The Curious Case of Dojo Pizza 

Accused of human trafficking, Loren Copp is under fire -- and in legal limbo

click to enlarge Loren Copp.

Steve Truesdell

Loren Copp.

One by one, the investigators pushed through the glass double doors of Dojo Pizza and fanned out across the church-turned-karate studio/pizzeria/school in south city.

Loren Copp, a barrel-chested ex-pastor whom everyone calls "Sensei," stepped aside as a St. Louis Metropolitan Police detective, social services workers and a city building inspector marched past. 

The 46-year-old lived in the three-story church. He taught free karate classes in the basement, and along with the four teenage girls in his care — two sisters he calls his daughters, and two more who moved in after their mother's drug problems left them in need of a home — hawked pizzas from a kitchen at the edge of what was once the church sanctuary.

"You don't turn kids away," Copp likes to say. "You don't turn people away. You do what you can to help."

Dojo Pizza also attracted hundreds of other visitors who passed through the quirky Bevo Mill operation for open-mic nights, community meetings and self-defense classes taught by police. Copp led a neighborhood patrol group and knew many of the officers who worked the area as a result.

But he didn't recognize the uniformed cops who stormed inside on October 15. Two of them took him to a table at the front of the restaurant and told him to sit down as the investigators split up in search of underage girls.

Nearly a dozen children, ranging from toddlers to older teens, were gathered around a video game downstairs. A.E., a seventeen-year-old who calls Copp "Dad," was just stepping out of the shower in the second-floor living quarters when the police arrived. She hurried into her bedroom and refused to come out. She only emerged when the detective leading the charge, Keaton Strong, escorted Copp by the arm to her door and allowed him to talk her into joining the other kids in the lobby.

When officers led Copp back to his table, he pulled out his cell phone and frantically typed a Facebook message to one of his police contacts, a supervisor in the First District.

"I'm being raided please help by officers," he wrote to Captain Steven Mueller.

The captain had previously penned a glowing letter of recommendation for Copp, but he claimed this operation was a surprise to him and must have been authorized by someone outside of his command.

"This is above my level!" Mueller replied.

"OK I don't know what this is."

"Me either. All I know is it didn't come thru me."

The team in Dojo Pizza that day was comprised mostly of unfamiliar faces, but Copp recognized Strong. The veteran detective, a member of a multi-agency human trafficking task force, had led social services workers through the building just three days before. They questioned the children and one of their mothers, who sometimes volunteered at Dojo. The investigators wanted to know if Copp forced the teens to work in the pizza shop or touched them in bad ways.

By the time the day was over, they had taken custody of six girls and a nine-year-old boy. Copp was led out of the building in handcuffs and eventually hauled off to a holding cell at the City Justice Center.

The alleged crime? Endangering the welfare of a child — apparently thanks to a .45-caliber Ruger handgun and .22-caliber rifle investigators found in his bedroom.

But the implications were ominous. Copp says Strong promised a much bigger case and serious charges were coming — six felonies in all.

When Copp was released from his holding cell nearly two days later, nearly everything in his life had changed. The children who lived with him were scattered in foster homes from Creve Coeur to Ferguson. Dojo Pizza was boarded up, the building condemned. In a week, TV news stations would report that Copp was under investigation for human trafficking.

Dojo Pizza had always been a strange, if sort of charming concept. The idea of a grizzled sensei taking an unlikely band of young students into his home and teaching them the karate and life skills they'd need to survive in a tough neighborhood seemed like the plot of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knockoff. (But get this: They'll live in a vacant church and support themselves by making delicious pizzas!)

"The thrill of eating at Dojo Pizza comes from knowing that the place probably couldn't exist anywhere outside St. Louis," wrote St. Louis Magazine.

The allegations of human trafficking, however, cast a sinister tint onto what had once seemed like oddball fun. At the center is Loren Copp, who has not been charged with any crime, although the investigation remains open. Whether you think there's a case against him hinges on how you feel about Copp. Is he a big-hearted champion of hard-luck kids? A deviant who preys upon the vulnerable? Or maybe just a bad businessman who made some mistakes, but is still getting a raw deal?

Copp had at first planned to help operate a K-8 school in the former home of Christy Memorial United Methodist Church on Morgan Ford Road. He was the pastor of Southwest Christian Church at the time, and the congregation wanted to set up its own education system, funneling the south-city students into a new $1.4 million high school it was building next to church headquarters in Fenton.

It was an ambitious plan, but Copp is an ambitious guy — sometimes prone to bite off more than he can chew. A 2011 front-page story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch uncovered two decades of lawsuits and fraud allegations targeting Copp and his failed construction ventures.

It wasn't long before the high school plan began to falter too, and follow-up stories in the Post-Dispatch detailed a new round of lawsuits between contractors and Southwest. 

Copp now says the coverage scared off investors. "This article came out, and it tanked us," he says.

Southwest dissolved under the financial pressure, and Copp split off to run his own operation at the Morgan Ford facility. He attributes his previous construction troubles to the overconfidence of a younger man.

"I thought I could do more than I could do," he says. "That's exactly what happened."

click to enlarge Dojo Pizza sits empty after a St. Louis building inspector filed 38 code violations. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Dojo Pizza sits empty after a St. Louis building inspector filed 38 code violations.

Dojo Pizza was a refuge for Copp. He was teaching karate classes and slowly working on the aging building. A donor supplied a high-end, spring-loaded floor for martial arts practice. A church donated used computers to set up a lab, and a former pupil passed along an inherited pizza oven. 

At first, Copp made pies just to feed the ten or twelve students who continued to take online classes after plans for the high school folded. Kids from the neighborhood soon figured out they could drop by the karate school for a meal, and their parents started to follow.

"The name stuck because everybody kept saying, 'I'm going to get some dojo pizza,'" Copp says.

He played along, sending the kids dressed in karate uniforms to serve customers. Diners saw it as lovable schtick, and the back-story of a nonprofit pizza shop supporting free karate lessons for poor kids was a heartwarmer. Dojo Pizza's Yelp reviews — four stars overall — were peppered with praise for the restaurant's "wonderful mission" and "good works."

Copp proudly introduced his teenage "daughters" to customers as he explained the operation. He wasn't their biological dad, or even their stepfather, but he had raised them for most of their lives and considered them his girls.

They had started living together as part of a temporary arrangement. Copp and his wife at the time, Julie, met Tauna Cowin at a school event. Cowin had six kids but not much money. When her family's apartment was condemned, she scrambled to find places for everyone. The youngest kids stayed with her; an older son moved in with his grandparents. Copp and his wife agreed to take in two of the sisters and an older brother.

The boy eventually moved on, but the girls (whom the RFT is identifying only by their initials), A.E. and K.S., stayed. Over time, they began to think of Copp as their dad. They stayed with him even after his divorce in 2013 and moved with him into the old church.

The building, if unconventional, turned out to be a perfect hangout for bored teens. Karate classes were free. Dance instructors took over the floor a couple of times a week, and there were concerts some weekends.

"It was like, 'Come in here, play basketball,'" says Heath Cowin, an older brother to A.E. and K.S. "'Come in and do karate. Come in and talk.'"

The girls quickly made friends with other teens in the neighborhood. Many of their new buddies went home to families at night, but in others they recognized a familiar sadness: children with fathers they never saw, mothers who made endless, empty promises. A slumber party with girls who had nowhere else to go might turn into a week, and then months. Some of the mothers even signed documents giving Copp power of attorney while they served jail sentences or searched for long-term housing.

But with four or five girls living at the dojo, and other teens dropping by during the day, things could be chaotic.

Copp ran the school under a nonprofit incorporated in 2007, Ma-ji Ryu Christian Karate Association Inc. He was an admittedly sloppy bookkeeper, installing one of the teens as a board member for a time to complete his mandated filings.

Recently, he received an $18,000 property tax bill. (He says he shouldn't have to pay because he runs a nonprofit.) The state notified Copp in May it planned to "dissolve or revoke" the corporation because he failed to notify authorities of a registered agent.

Through the school, he was granted government funds for breakfasts, lunches and snacks to feed the students. The payouts totaled $14,121 for the 2014-'15 school year, according to Missouri Department of Education records. They were also provided some government-issued food, Copp says.

The kids frequently ate pizza for dinner. Sometimes Copp sprang for McDonald's hamburgers.

It wasn't two parents and a white picket fence, but it also wasn't foster care or the streets.

"We took them in from a troubled situation," Copp says. Of the first two sisters who came under his care, he recalls, "That was supposed to be the summer. It ended up being nine years."

click to enlarge Federal agents return to Dojo Pizza on November 12, following the first police raid in a human-trafficking investigation the month before. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • Doyle Murphy
  • Federal agents return to Dojo Pizza on November 12, following the first police raid in a human-trafficking investigation the month before.

On October 22, nine days after police
hauled Copp away from Dojo Pizza in handcuffs, neighbors living behind the boarded-up church noticed something strange. A black sport utility vehicle pulled into the back alley, and three men in dark clothes and hoodies climbed out. The trio looked like law enforcement types to 66-year-old Cindy Duncan. Another neighbor agreed.

They watched as the men raised a ladder to the second-floor living quarters and slipped through a narrow window.

Duncan wasn't quite sure what to make of the three. When police had come before, they wore uniforms or suits and walked through the front door. She thought they might be there to seal up the window. The clear pane had fallen out a day or two before while she was working in her yard.

"It scared the crap out of me," she remembers.

But the men didn't seem to have any interest in that. She watched quietly as they descended the ladder and loaded it back in the SUV. One of them spoke, and she could just make out the words. "See you all tomorrow," he said, according to Duncan.

She didn't know what that meant either, but she didn't have to wait long figure it out.

The next morning, reporters hurried to Morgan Ford. The previous raid on Dojo Pizza hadn't made the nightly news, but now television cameras pointed at the front doors as FBI agents and Metro detectives in black vests streamed inside. The footage captured agents hauling away computers and boxes of files. Animal control officers loaded up pet cats and gerbils.

Officially, authorities weren't saying much. But reporters working back channels soon pried loose tips about seven girls "housed" inside and allegations of human trafficking.

Copp, who had moved into a friend's basement in south St. Louis County, stayed away. He granted one off-camera interview to a FOX 2 reporter he knew through church, saying only, "There is no human trafficking. There is no sex trafficking of children. I haven't been charged with anything along those lines."

A warrant later obtained by Riverfront Times and other media spelled out the allegations. Detective Strong wrote in the affidavit that Copp was the target of a "Labor Trafficking and Sexual Abuse of Minors" investigation, sparked by the word of an informant. The confidential source, referred to as CS in the seven-page document, claimed children suffered from bedbugs and lice while Copp pocketed the government funds that were supposed to go toward school lunches. Instead of schooling the kids, the source claimed, Copp forced them to work in the pizza restaurant.

"The CS advised that when minors refuse to work, the target institutes verbal punishment, including threats of being put out of the shelter, which would leave the minors homeless," the affidavit says. "The CS also advised that the target touches the minors in inappropriate ways (sexually), in inappropriate areas, against their will."

There was more in family court documents obtained by Riverfront Times.

"Loren Copp allegedly used to play 'the butt game' with the child in which Mr. Copp will make the child touch his butt and he chases the child and touches her butt," Juvenile Officer Kathryn Herman claimed in a petition, requesting a judge place the children in state custody.

Copp, who admits he performed acupuncture on one of the teens, was accused of poking needles into her breast — charges he emphatically denies.

Tauna Cowin was also targeted by Herman, who claimed that five of the single mom's youngest children lived at Dojo Pizza. Cowin was accused of standing by while her kids lived in filthy, dangerous conditions.

Herman asked that they be taken into foster care. "The child would be at risk for further harm if returned to the custody of the mother at this time," she concluded.

Cowin and Copp have argued in the past. She claims he has blocked her plans over the past eighteen months to reclaim her two oldest daughters, even as she's settled into a large, three-bedroom apartment north of downtown.

"I think he was trying to have the best interest for the girls, but he should have seen they should have been with their mom," she says.

But despite their differences, Cowin doesn't believe he sexually abused her daughters or forced them into some kind of pizza-shop slave labor. The family court petitions are filled with errors, including allegations her three youngest also lived at the dojo with their big sisters, Cowin says. She claims she and the kids often spent a few nights there but never lived there full time.

As proof, she points out that law enforcement agents on October 15 had to request she bring the kids to Morgan Ford from her home, so they could take them. (The three spent more than five weeks in foster care before they were suddenly allowed to return to Cowin's home on November 23.)

If investigators can't even figure who lives where, she says, how can they claim to know what was going on at the dojo?

"I think it's total BS," Cowin says of the allegations against Copp. "I think it's just somebody coming up with some cockamamie lies because they're mad at him."

More than a dozen people who spent significant amounts of time at Dojo Pizza over the years told Riverfront Times versions of the same thing. Hundreds of people have flowed through Copp's building: Customers, parents of neighborhood kids, teachers, cops, social workers and teens all visited without raising any red flags. 

The nineteen-year-old boyfriend of Copp's oldest "daughter," A.E., hung out at the pizzeria most days and spent the nights talking with her on Facetime. If something had been going on, he would have seen it or she would have told him, he says.

"I'm being honest, nothing ever stood out to me as weird at all," he says.

Karen Chaney, 40, has spent most of her life living across the street from Dojo Pizza, and her twelve-year-old daughter was close friends with the girls who lived there. She credits Copp with chasing away the gangs who used to sit on the steps. She trusted him so much she allowed her daughter to stay the night.

The girls had chores and helped out around the pizza shop, but she laughs at the suggestion it rose to the level of forced labor.

"If that's the case, I must be human trafficking," Chaney deadpans. "Because I have my kids clean the house every day."

click to enlarge The door to the karate studio at Dojo Pizza is now boarded up. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • The door to the karate studio at Dojo Pizza is now boarded up.

Just the words "human trafficking" conjure images of some of the ugliest sins one person can commit against another. The crime can cover anything from blackmail to sex slavery to coercing an undocumented immigrant to work in a sweatshop, but it has at its core the age-old violation of the powerful brutalizing the weak.

Missouri has recently decided to crack down on traffickers, forming a new Human Trafficking Force that was unveiled this fall during a series of public hearings across the state. Politicians, former victims and law enforcement agents charged with bringing traffickers to justice detailed the horrors they were up against and what they planned to do about them.

One of the difficulties, presenters told the audience at a stop in Brentwood, is there is still little money to take care of the victims once they're rescued.

"Slim resources, high need challenge advocates for human-trafficking survivors," read the headline from a St. Louis Public Radio story on the event.

Strong was a panelist that day, and he talked about how hard it was to keep juvenile victims in a safe place while they went after the traffickers.

"This is heartfelt to me," he said. "I've been doing this portion of human trafficking for the last couple years, but I've been a juvenile detective for years before that."

Human trafficking has also become a priority on the federal level. Authorities say FBI-led stings across the nation recovered 149 child victims in October. Raids in St. Louis came up empty, but task force leaders touted their other busts and vowed to keep the pressure on.

"While last week's stings in the St. Louis area had negative results, the task force rescued approximately three dozen child victims from sex trafficking and child enticement so far this year," William Woods, the special agent in charge of the FBI St. Louis Division, said in a news release.

A bust at Dojo Pizza would be a high-profile case for human-trafficking investigators here. When FBI agents and city cops returned to the church on November 12, they had an audience of reporters who tweeted play-by-play updates and noted in their stories that computers were confiscated as part of an ongoing investigation.

"Better days are to come," St. Louis alderwoman Carol Howard told a KMOV reporter. "I'm working, trying to get control of the building and see if we can't find someone who will take it over and build something that will be an asset to the community."

Federal investigators remained nearly silent, an FBI spokeswoman confirming only that agents had returned to Dojo Pizza for "a law enforcement purpose." St. Louis police say there's "an ongoing investigation relative to Dojo Pizza," and they can't release more details. The limited information left the public to speculate about a single man, living alone with young girls, amassing who knows what on computers that had been carted away by federal investigators.

It's all ridiculous, Copp says. "There's no kids tied up in cages in the basement of the building."

Sitting in the law offices of J. Justin Meehan, Copp looks more like a sleep-starved trucker in his sweatshirt and jeans than the karate master photographed smiling in old Dojo Pizza restaurant reviews. He has spent the past several weeks avoiding reporters even as he watched all the news reports. At this point, he figures, it would be tough for anyone to say anything worse about him than has already been said. He talks for two hours.

"They're saying my girls are lice infested, malnourished," Copp says. "You know what kind of damage that's going to do to my kids?"

He eagerly scrolls through his phone in search of Facebook posts written by the girls, hoping to prove he isn't some creep who terrorized children.

"Here, look at this," he says and hands over his phone. It's a long message A.E. posted on Father's Day.

"Who Knew That I Would have A Father Every Year To Tell Happy Fathers Day To?!" it reads in part. "Who Knew I Would Have An Awesome Guy Like You In My Life. You have Showed Me Rights From My Wrongs. Not Having My Blood Dad Is Hard But, I'd Rather Have Someone Who Treats Me As Blood Then Not."

The allegations just aren't true, Copp insists. The dojo wasn't an illegal rooming house; it was their home. The building wasn't falling apart and filled with trash; it was being renovated. He wasn't keeping kids as slave labor; he was showing them how to run a kitchen and build things with their hands.

"There wasn't any forced labor," he says. "We were teaching kids things. It was like summer camp all year long."

After weeks of public silence, Copp works his way through the allegations, sometimes breaking off in the middle of one accusation to combat another.

"This whole thing has blown up into somebody calling in a complaint, and then terms like 'human trafficking' and 'sex trafficking' get thrown out. My reputation has been dragged through the mud."

Copp sees signs of a set-up in all corners of the investigation. Why do city officials suddenly have a problem with him living in a "commercial structure"? It was no secret that he lived there. And what about the three men in the SUV who his neighbors saw climbing through an upper window? "What did they take out of my building — or what did they put in?"

His theories about the origins of the investigation focus on three people: Howard, Detective Strong and a 34-year-old woman named Lorraine Bala, who stayed at the Dojo for several weeks. 

Copp says Bala left her daughter with him just days before being jailed on drug charges. According to a police report, an officer in Maryland Heights searched her hotel room at the Extended Stay America in December 2012 and found her with marijuana and alprazolam (commonly marketed as Xanax) and buprenorphine, an alternative to methadone, which under medical supervision can help fight heroin addiction. It can also be abused. 

Bala ended up pleading guilty to a couple of counts of marijuana possession. After she was released, she moved into Dojo Pizza for awhile.

Everything was fine at first. She volunteered in the kitchen and helped teach the teens how to wait tables. A photo of her next to Copp, wearing a red karate uniform, appeared in a Riverfront Times story in June 2014.

But the arrangement soon soured. Copp says Bala would get into shouting matches on the front porch, and he claims he caught her using his ATM card. He eventually told her to leave. He later put her daughter out when she refused to abide by his curfew, Copp says.

Months later, when he learned a confidential source was feeding detectives allegations, he immediately thought of Bala.

"You've got a crazy woman who is trying to make me look bad," he says.

The first time Bala speaks to Riverfront Times, she confirms she stayed at Dojo Pizza after she was released from jail.

"He helped me out — at least that's what I thought," she says. "Instead, he fucked up my life."

She claims she left on her own to look for permanent housing, and when she returned to check on her daughter, the place was a disaster. Cat feces on the floor. Children forced to man the pizza shop. She also insists that Copp touched the girls inappropriately.

Bala says when she took her daughter to enroll at school, administrators rejected a transcript from her classes at Copp's place, and that resulted in an investigation. Bala says she has spoken to social service workers and police about Dojo Pizza.

"The man is fake as fuck," she says of Copp. "He's a liar."

She claims a social services worker involved in the investigation showed her pictures of her naked daughter taken by a hidden camera in the ceiling of building's shower. 

Bala relayed that information to A.E. and her boyfriend in a string of Facebook messages, but the exchange turned nasty when they didn't believe her.

"u look hella gay bitch," Bala writes to A.E.'s nineteen-year-old boyfriend.

"That kool I don't argue with drug addicts," he replies.

The next time Bala talks to a reporter, she says she'll call back in 30 minutes but doesn't. Reached a few days later, she says her caseworker warned her talking to the media could hurt her chances to regain custody of her daughter. "I'm trying to play by the rules," she says apologetically, before adding: "I hope you find out the truth."

Copp says Bala's claims don't make any sense.

"If they had me with pictures of the kids, I'd be locked up," he says.

As for forcing kids to work, he says they would ask to wait tables because they like to learn and because he let them keep all the tips. If anyone thought that was trafficking, any of the cops or community leaders who regularly passed through would have reported him, he says.

Howard, the alderwoman, wasn't a regular at Dojo Pizza, but she was familiar with the old church. She and Copp clashed when he pulled out the old stained-glass windows so he could sell them. 

"It's almost cannibalistic," she says. "You're living there and you're parting it out?"

Copp thinks the disagreement over the windows is proof Howard has it out for him. He now believes she pulled strings to sic police and building inspectors on him. If she was able to point Strong his way, it wouldn't have taken much for the detective to find an angry Bala and start building a case, he reasons.

Howard denies she had anything to do with the investigation and says she would be surprised if the human-trafficking accusations are true. It's more likely Copp is just a careless businessman, she says.

"I think the man had good intentions, and for whatever reason, he couldn't realize those intentions."

Copp returns, briefly, to Dojo Pizza about three weeks after he was forced out. The city building inspector has granted permission for a walk-through to examine the long list of violations detailed in the citations. 

Dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans and paint-splattered Crocs, Copp brings along attorney Meehan, an architect and a couple of friends to document the condition of the building. A terrible smell hits them as soon as they step inside the door.

"You can tell there's rotten food because they just closed up the building and shut the power off," Copp says as the group films their entry.

A city building inspector wrote 38 code violations during the October 15 raid. The list of grievances included signs of rodents, a leaking roof, weak lighting in public spaces, a defective shower, unlicensed electrical work, peeling paint and the operation of an illegal rooming house in a commercially zoned building.

Copp and his entourage find the upstairs bedrooms rummaged through. Mattresses have been stripped and yanked askew. Papers in Copp's office are scattered across his desk and floor. In the girls' rooms, the camera pans across what's left of their home of nearly three years. A few childhood pictures are taped to a closet door next to an overturned bed in one bedroom. The cinderblock walls of another alternate between bright pink and purple. A girl's winter coat hangs from a peg.

Not so long ago, these rooms were small worlds unto themselves, filled with teen dramas. A.E. and K.S. have spent most of their lives carving out new homes, assembling and reassembling their families as the people around them change. A friendly woman might be called "Mom" for a time. Friends become more like relatives. The only constants in the sisters' lives, for better or worse, had been Copp and each other. A.E. and K.S. had rooms side by side on the second floor. Copp's was down the hall.

click to enlarge Loren Copp's office is covered in scattered papers following a series of law-enforcement raids. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Loren Copp's office is covered in scattered papers following a series of law-enforcement raids.

When the state came in October, social services workers separated the teens and sent them to foster homes across the area. K.S. was placed with a younger sister, one of the children recently taken from Cowin, in Ferguson. A.E. was sent to live at a home in Creve Coeur. Though she's allowed to call her sisters and her boyfriend, she can't see them.

"She hates being separated from her sisters," her boyfriend says. "She cries every time she talks to her sister."

He thinks investigators are trying to pressure her to say Copp forced her to work or sexually abused her.

"But she's not because there's nothing to say."

Her boyfriend patches A.E. through to a reporter one night. She says working at Dojo Pizza was like working in a family business, or cleaning up around the house. Most evenings they'd sell two or three pizzas. Five was a huge night.

"It wasn't like we were forced to," she says. "It was like our choice." She denies Copp ever did anything inappropriate to her.

Her voice sounds small and scared through the phone. She doesn't feel comfortable in the foster home. The first few days, before she started school, she was left alone in the house with her foster mother's boyfriend and no cell phone to call for help if she needed it, she says.

Detective Strong makes her nervous, too. His girlfriend lives next door to the foster home, she says, and she would see him outside her apartment in the mornings. One night, he dropped by to take A.E. to dinner. They walked alone through a dark parking lot to a restaurant and he talked to her about school. He told her she should play a sport and she was a "pretty young lady," she says.

A police spokesman didn't answer specific questions from Riverfront Times about Strong other than to say there are no internal affairs complaints against him.

"The Metropolitan Police Department, City of St. Louis, holds our officers to the highest professional standards and takes any allegations of officer misconduct seriously," the department said in an email.

If A.E. were free to leave and go wherever she liked, she says, she'd move in with Gabriela Niles and her husband in south St. Louis County. Niles, one of Copp's former karate students, often visited the dojo and doted on the girls, who took turns staying at her house. She liked to take them one at a time to let them know they're special and give them a break from all the teenage drama. It's peaceful away from the city, and they could imagine what it must be like for all the kids who grew up in the quiet houses with neatly trimmed yards. 

Niles took them swimming at her cousin's pool and to the pumpkin patch. She was making Halloween plans before they were shuttled away.

At first the teens called her Gabby, but more and more they say "Mom."

"I feel like I could have more time to myself [there]," A.E. says.

Someone in the foster home calls for dinner, and she whispers that she has to hang up.

click to enlarge Dojo Pizza's former kitchen is no longer in service. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Dojo Pizza's former kitchen is no longer in service.

Copp agrees to meet a photographer one morning at Dojo Pizza. Not long ago, he would stand watch against the gangs, peering down night after night from his perch atop the front porch. Now, he's nervous someone will spot him.

"Last thing I need is to get into an altercation out here," he says.

After about five minutes, he can't take it anymore and ducks into the alley in the rear of the building. Cindy Duncan, who had noticed the men in the black SUV back before the story was in the media spotlight, sees him and immediately hurries over.

"You better come back," she says. "We need you."

Another neighbor from across the street joins her, and a family next door comes by to shake hands. "We've been over here since February, and he was the nicest person," 27-year-old Jacob Thomas says. "Nothing along the lines of human trafficking would ever cross my mind."

Copp loosens up among his neighbors, but then he sees a patrol car pull into the alley a block away. Legally, he's as free as anyone standing here. It has been weeks since the first raid, and he can hang out wherever he likes. The charges he was told were coming that first night in a jail cell have yet to materialize. No one will say if they ever will. But Copp continues to move like a hunted man.

"I'm going to get," he says. He hustles around the corner, hops into a friend's town car and they wheel away.

Copp's best defense, should he ever be charged, will likely be the dozens of people he has befriended and invited into the dojo to eat pizza, practice karate and hang out with his girls. If he ran a human-trafficking operation, it happened right under the noses of legions of visitors.

Shelly Gonzalez, a social worker who has helped out around Dojo Pizza, says she'd be shocked if the allegations are true. However, she wants a definitive answer either way: If he did something, let him suffer. But if he didn't? She thinks of the girls' lives thrown into chaos, and how nervous Copp is to be seen in front of his own home.

"If this isn't real, if this is someone's vendetta? Oh my God."

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