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New Evidence in the Death of a Queens Massage Worker

Surveillance video sheds some light on the police raid that killed Yang Song last year while, advocates say, the raids continue.

Yumei Shi thanks demonstrators at a rally demanding justice for Yang Song outside the 109th NYPD Precinct in Flushing on Dec. 17, 2017.
Scott Heins for The Appeal

New Evidence in the Death of a Queens Massage Worker

Surveillance video sheds some light on the police raid that killed Yang Song last year while, advocates say, the raids continue.

Seven months after Yang Song, a 38-year-old massage worker in Flushing, Queens, fell four stories to her death during a police anti-prostitution raid, the public may soon get some answers about what happened. A report expected to be released before the end of June will conclude there was no misconduct in Yang Song’s death, according to her brother and another person who viewed surveillance footage in a meeting with representatives from the Queens District Attorney’s Office earlier this month.

Queens County DA spokesperson Kim Livingston would not confirm if or when such a meeting had taken place, or when report findings will be released, if at all. But while the community waits for answers, raids like the one that led to Yang Song’s death continue in Flushing.

“These massage parlor raids must stop,” Red, an organizer with Support Ho(s)e, a sex workers’ rights group that led a rally after Yang Song’s death, told The Appeal. “The violence of police raids in the name of rescue has never been justifiable. Loss of livelihood and loss of life are all that ever come from police raids. Yang Song should still be here.”

On Nov. 25, 2017, police officers entered the building where Yang Song provided massage services on 40th Road. A short time later, she fell from a fourth-floor balcony and died the next day. Her brother Hai Song and mother, Yumei Shi, arrived in New York from China soon after and publicly raised questions about the circumstances of her death. Yang had told them by phone that she had been sexually assaulted by a man claiming to be an undercover officer, they revealed, and that she had been pressured by police to become an informant.

An autopsy report signed March 22 and shared with The Appeal acknowledges that the police raid played a role in her death. Yang Song “jumped from fourth-story balcony in attempt to evade arrest by New York City Police Department,” it states. She died as a result of blunt force trauma to her head, neck, and extremities, according to the medical examiner, whose office conducted the autopsy on Nov. 27. Assistant District Attorney Suzanne M. Bettis also confirmed to The Appeal that her office has the surveillance footage. She did not confirm showing it to Yang Song’s family.

The Queens DA’s office collected surveillance footage from multiple cameras, according to Hai Song and a second person who viewed the video but was not authorized to speak on the record: from the stairwell outside of the room where Song fell, from inside the room, and from outside the building on 40th Road. In the stairwell video, Yang Song is seen walking up the stairs with a man identified in the meeting as an undercover police officer, according to those present. In the room footage, the man is seen entering the bathroom before leaving the apartment. In the external video, a body falls through the frame, which captures neither the balcony nor the sidewalk below.

Though the video apparently does not show an officer and Yang Song directly interact in the seconds before she fell, Hai Song still isn’t satisfied, and remains skeptical of the police. “No matter why my sister fell from the building,” he told The Appeal, “there were always threats and harassment from the police before the accident.”

Since November, Hai Song and his mother have been living in a tiny room in Flushing, so narrow that the twin beds nearly touch. Food donations from a local church—orange juice, boxes of macaroni and cheese—are stacked against one wall next to a large pale-pink thermos that Hai Song recovered from the room where his sister fell. “Even when I’m sleeping, I still think” about the case, he told The Appeal on an unseasonably hot afternoon last month.

Yang Song's mother Yumei Shi continues to grieve in the one-room apartment in Flushing she is sharing with her son, Hai Song.
Scott Heins for The Appeal

Bettis’s team at the Queens DA’s office initially declined to share surveillance footage with Song’s brother and mother at a meeting this spring, according to Hai Song and civil attorney Julia Kuan, who was also at that meeting. Last month, State Assemblyman Ron Kim sent a letter to the DA’s office asking them to release “evidence and any footage they might have” to Hai Song. Soon after, Kim’s office said, the DA reportedly agreed to the viewing.

“Assemblymember Kim understands Song Hai and his mother’s continual frustration,” Tony Cao, a spokesperson for his office, told The Appeal. “She’s a victim regardless of whatever the ultimate conclusion is.”

Michael Chu, founder of the Flushing Neighborhood Watch Team, says the lack of public information on the case has allowed rumors to swirl for months. Posters seeking information about Yang Song’s death, hung by her brother, are still visible on neighborhood lampposts. “We really need a very clean, very objective investigation,” Chu said. “Show us the evidence, show us the video.”

Catherine Carbonaro, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society who represents trafficking victims and people with prostitution-related charges, said she hoped arrests targeting Asian women in massage businesses in Queens might stop or slow after Yang Song’s death. But while prostitution arrests in the borough have decreased, she said, arrests involving massage workers have barely budged. Her caseload included 59 prostitution and massage-related arrests over the last five months and the same number during the same period in 2017; this year, there were 20 Chinese or Korean defendants in those cases, compared with 29 last year. “We’re still seeing the most arrests in Queens” compared with the other four boroughs, she said. Massage businesses remain a significant target for repeat operations by police, Carbonaro added. “We have seen them go back to the same places.”

Yang Song’s death came nearly 10 months after the NYPD pledged to arrest fewer people on prostitution charges, part of a trust-building initiative with immigrant communities as President Trump’s rhetoric stoked fear. Yet Carbonaro told The Appeal her clients still report problems with the police. They often don’t understand what is happening to them in these arrests, Carbonaro said, as undercover officers attempt to get them to agree to an act of prostitution or an unlicensed massage. The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The consequences for these arrests remain grave: the threat of deportation. Of Carbonaro’s clients who have been deported or detained by ICE, two are Korean and one (still in deportation proceedings) is Chinese.

At a "People's Monday" rally in March, activists marched through Flushing denouncing the NYPD and adding Yang Song's name to a long list of victims of police violence.
Scott Heins for The Appeal

Activists have held community actions in recent months, remembering Yang Song and demanding change. On Dec. 17, 2017, activists from the city’s sex workers’ rights community gathered outside the 109th Precinct in Flushing, calling for an end to the massage parlor arrests. Yang Song’s mother, Yumei Shi, walked the circle of about two dozen people gathered on the sidewalk, thanking each one. The anti-police brutality group NYC Shut It Down, which marches each week to honor a different person killed by police, took to the streets of Flushing on March 5 for Yang Song and demanded the decriminalization of sex work.

With the investigation nearing its conclusion, Yang Song’s family is left with little closure. Her brother says he wants a guarantee from the DA’s office that he will receive a copy of the surveillance footage and the entire police report.

Kuan, the civil lawyer, told The Appeal that her office does not have adequate evidence to pursue a lawsuit on their behalf. Setting aside the possibility of police misconduct, however, Kuan thinks Yang Song’s death should be a lesson for law enforcement. “I do believe she fell from there because there was a raid happening,” she said. “I think there’s a bigger question about the NYPD’s priorities.”

Translation and additional reporting by Rong Xiaoqing.