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The Curious Case of Dojo Pizza 

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

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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."

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