The Curious Case of Dojo Pizza

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

Loren Copp.
Loren Copp. Steve Truesdell

Page 5 of 5

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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