A former Mt. Pleasant massage parlor owner who served more than a year in jail for human trafficking told a Westmoreland County judge on Thursday she did not understand English well enough to plead guilty in late 2019.
Hui Xu, 46, testifying through an translator, claimed she did not fully comprehend the impact of her plea deal. It resulted in her being sentenced to serve just less than 1-to-2 years in jail for operating four message parlors that state investigators said served as homes for prostitution.
Xu, a Chinese national who was in the process of attempting to become a U.S. citizen prior to her arrest, claimed her then-lawyer never properly explained her right to have a trial or that she faced potential deportation as a result of her conviction. She also contends that a translator was not used during those private discussions prior to her guilty plea.
Those alleged errors by her former defense lawyer are reason to allow Xu to withdraw her guilty plea, according to new defense attorney James DePasquale. If the change is allowed, that could allow her to remain in the United States.
DePasquale said a federal immigration judge on June 14 ordered Xu to be deported to China.
Xu had been in jail and served her entire sentence for the human trafficking offenses. Until last weekend, she was held in the Washington and Cambria county jails when she was paroled from her federal detainer after the Chinese government refused to allow her enter the county.
“She has no place to go,” DePasquale said.
Prosecutors said Xu, also known as Sherry Caruso, operated four Tokyo Massage Parlors in Murrysville, Delmont and Monroeville, where police said workers performed sex acts for clients.
According to investigators, women were brought into Western Pennsylvania from China through a network that ran through Flushing, N.Y.
They were required to work at the massage parlors where they lived in deplorable conditions.
Those women were routinely shifted among Xu’s businesses and a fifth massage parlor, Judy’s Oriental Massage Parlor in Murrysville, owned by one of Xu’s former employees, prosecutors said.
According to court records and previous testimony Xu, with her husband, Henry “Sonny” Caruso, conspired to operate the human trafficking ring through the massage parlors and laundered proceeds from the businesses.
Caruso, 49, a former jail guard who worked at the Westmoreland County Prison, would have been charged for his role in the operation had he not committed suicide in 2018, a state prosecutor said at the time of Xu’s guilty plea.
Xu’s appeal revolves around the defense contention that her former defense lawyer, Anastasia Williams, did not use a translator when she failed to prepare a written document that outlined the details of the plea bargain and the jury trial process. That left Xu misinformed and led her to erroneously plead guilty, according to the defense.
According to a transcript from the December 2019 court hearing read in court on Thursday, Williams told Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway that Xu understood her trial rights and the terms of the plea bargain.
Williams testified Thursday via telephone she carefully explained the plea deal to Xu and that a Mandarin translator was present during both their private conversation and in the courtroom during the December 2019 guilty plea hearing.
But Williams conceded she did not read and have Xu sign a written guilty plea petition.
“I did not specifically go through a guilty plea petition because of the language barrier,” Williams testified.
Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court Judge Scott Mears ordered attorneys for the Xu and the prosecution submit legal written arguments. He said he would decide Xu’s appeal later this year.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .