Vast crime net­work be­hind il­licit mas­sage par­lors

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY NI­CHOLAS KULISH, FRANCES ROBLES AND PA­TRI­CIA MAZZEI New York Times

She was 49, a re­cent im­mi­grant and deeply in debt to a loan shark back home in China when she an­swered an em­ploy­ment ad three years ago that promised thou­sands of dol­lars a month, but of­fered no job de­scrip­tion. She re­al­ized too late that she had been tricked into work­ing at a mas­sage par­lor in Flush­ing, Queens, where be­sides knead­ing backs, she was ex­pected to sex­u­ally ser­vice up to a dozen men a day.

Some of the clients were vi­o­lent, and the boss charged $10 a day for her to sleep on a sofa in a room at the par­lor where rats nib­bled on her food. “The cus­tomers were very ter­ri­ble,” said the woman, who, ashamed of the stigma of her for­mer pro­fes­sion, asked that her name not be used. “Af­ter you per­form a ser­vice, they would find an ex­cuse to take the money away.” They would, she said, “do even worse things.”

In strip malls across the coun­try, neon signs and brightly col­ored plac­ards prom­ise hot stones, acupunc­ture and shi­atsu with pho­tos of women or cou­ples re­ceiv­ing re­lax­ing shoul­der rubs. But a tra­di­tion­ally Asian form of ther­a­peu­tic re­lax­ation with deep roots in big-city Chi­na­towns has spun off a dif­fer­ent kind of mas­sage par­lor that has lit­tle to do with tra­di­tional reme­dies. It has ex­ploded into a $3 bil­lion-a-year sex in­dus­try that re­lies on per­va­sive se­crecy, close-knit own­er­ship rings and tens of thou­sands of mostly for- eign women en­snared in a form of mod­ern in­den­tured servi­tude.

The fre­quently mid­dleaged women who work in par­lors with names like Or­chids of Asia and Rain­bow Spa are of­ten strug­gling to pay off high debts to fam­ily mem­bers, loan sharks, la­bor traf­fick­ers and lawyers who help them file phony asy­lum claims. In some cases, their pass­ports are taken and their il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus keeps them fur­ther in the shad­ows, with some of them ro­tated every 10 days to two weeks be­tween spas op­er­ated by the same own­ers. Forced to pay for their own sup­plies and even their own con­doms, many women must sleep on the same mas­sage ta­bles where they ser­vice cus­tomers and cook on hot plates in cramped kitchens or on back steps.

“We stopped think­ing about just cages, bars and chains as the means of co­er­cion,” said John Rich­mond, the State De­part­ment’s top anti-traf­fick­ing of­fi­cial. “They are us­ing non­vi­o­lent forms of co­er­cion.”

The re­cent ar­rest war­rant filed against Robert K. Kraft, owner of the New Eng­land Patriots – and the so­lic­i­ta­tion charges filed against nearly 300 men in mul­ti­ple ju­ris­dic­tions as part of the same case – riv­eted na­tional at­ten­tion to a stretch of High­way 1 along Florida’s Trea­sure Coast dot­ted with strip malls, gas sta­tions and sap­phire ocean views. Across the re­gion, par­lors were empty and many fre­quent clients were phon­ing their lawyers, won­der­ing if more war­rants were go­ing to drop.

Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials said there were an es­ti­mated 9,000 il­licit mas­sage par­lors across the coun­try, from Or­lando to Los An­ge­les. The epi­cen­ter of this na­tional un­der­ground is the bustling Chi­na­town in Flush­ing, in the New York City bor­ough of Queens. Women – typ­i­cally Chi­nese, but also Korean, Thai and East Euro­pean – ar­rive at Kennedy In­ter­na­tional Air- port, learn the trade and are sent to places like Vir­ginia, Iowa, Texas and Florida. Women are re­cruited lo­cally through ads in Chi­nese-lan­guage news­pa­pers or over the so­cial net­work WeChat.

“Flush­ing is the cen­ter of this net­work,” said Lori Co­hen, direc­tor of Sanc­tu­ary for Fam­i­lies’ An­ti­Traf­fick­ing Ini­tia­tive, which has in­ter­viewed around 1,000 mas­sage work­ers over the past five years and helped the 49year-old im­mi­grant who was sex­u­ally as­saulted leave the busi­ness af­ter she was ar­rested. “They are show­ing up in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try, but all of them have ad­dresses in Flush­ing, Queens,” she said.

The women are paid just a sliver of the $60 or more the client pays for an hour­long mas­sage. Their real money – and chance at a bet­ter life – comes in the form of tips, which they are en­cour­aged or forced to am­plify through il­le­gal means.

A 60-year-old for­mer mas­sage worker from Tai­wan, who agreed to be iden­ti­fied only by the nick­name she com­monly uses, Tina, said she was lured into work­ing at a mas­sage par­lor in New York a decade ago by the travel agency bro­ker who helped se­cure her visa to travel to the United States. “Peo­ple come here and don’t have a place to live,” she said. “These places of­fer a place to live, and it seems like a nice idea. They say, ‘It’s not safe to keep your pass­port on hand,' and they will ask to hold the pass­port.”

She was ar­rested sev­eral times be­fore get­ting out of the busi­ness, and feels com­par­a­tively lucky. One close friend was spir­ited to Texas by traf­fick­ers, she said, had her pass­port taken and was forced to see eight to 12 cus­tomers a day. One day the tear­ful calls she of­ten re­ceived from her friend came to an abrupt halt.

“A lot of the busi­nesses that look like ei­ther nail sa­lons or mas­sage places, es­pe­cially the places that of­fer mas­sage, there are bad things hap­pen­ing there,” she said. “It’s 100 per­cent or­ga­nized crime.”

The ubiq­uity of the mas­sage par­lors of­fers an ac­ces­si­bil­ity and sheen of nor­malcy not of­fered by tra­di­tional broth­els. And as the mas­sage par­lors have ex­panded even into small-town Amer­ica in re­cent years, metic­u­lously de­tailed re­view sites like Rubmaps have served as the Yelp and Foursquare of the il­licit par­lor busi­ness, with graphic anatom­i­cal de­scrip­tions of the women and ex­plicit break­downs of the sex­ual ser­vices prof­fered.

Even at il­licit par­lors, own­ers and man­agers can claim ignorance of the ad­di­tional ser­vices of­fered by em­ploy­ees be­hind closed doors. The ev­i­dence gath­ered dur­ing raids and searches of­ten tells a far dif­fer­ent tale. The po­lice say it is com­mon to find ledgers track­ing the num­ber of “dates” women have had, as was found in a bust in Dal­las in 2016. In one case in Kan­sas, a search of the premises yielded a note­book with hand­writ­ten Chi­nese-English trans­la­tions that “in­cluded sex­u­ally ex­plicit phrases such as ‘did you bring condom' and ‘happy end­ing.’”

A fed­eral law en­force­ment of­fi­cial, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause this per­son is in­volved in ac­tive cases, said the most com­mon method for smug­gling women from Asian coun­tries was ei­ther a fraud­u­lent tourist visa or a fraud­u­lent work visa, such as for nurs­ing work. Many came as stu­dents, then over­stayed to work in the sex in­dus­try.

Many women ar­rive in the United States from China bear­ing heavy debt bur­dens and try to find work in restau­rants or nail sa­lons. But the money isn’t good enough for the five-fig­ure debts weigh­ing them down. The mas­sage jobs are pre­sented as op­por­tu­ni­ties for fast, easy money.

“They will talk about how they used to work in a restau­rant and it was re­ally hard phys­i­cally and they couldn’t make that much money, and then they heard from some­body or saw an ad say­ing they could make a lot more money in a mas­sage par­lor,” said Leigh La­timer, a su­per­vis­ing at­tor­ney at the Le­gal Aid So­ci­ety’s ex­ploita­tion in­ter­ven­tion project in New York.

One rea­son the Asian mas­sage par­lors re­main so poorly un­der­stood is the ex­treme re­luc­tance of the women to speak with po­lice and even with their own lawyers.

“Even though I’ve rep­re­sented many, many women ar­rested in un­li­censed mas­sage par­lors, be­cause of the level of dis­trust of peo­ple work­ing, al­most all im­mi­grants, al­most all un­doc­u­mented, they don’t trust even their at­tor­neys enough to let them know what’s hap­pened to them,” La­timer said.

Some fear re­tal­i­a­tion by traf­fick­ers to their fam­i­lies in China, and some feel morally in­debted to those who helped find them a job, said Chris Muller, direc­tor of train­ing and ex­ter­nal af­fairs at Re­store NYC, an anti-sex-traf­fick­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“This is a pow­er­ful ex­ploita­tion tac­tic,” he said. “Any fa­vor is im­plied there is go­ing to be a pay­ment back. ‘Look at what I have done for you. I found you a job. I found you a place to live and this is how you re­pay me?’”


New Eng­land Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with so­lic­it­ing pros­ti­tu­tion at this mas­sage par­lor in Jupiter, Fla. In a $3 bil­lion-a-year in­dus­try, many women stay on as pros­ti­tutes in or­der to pay debts to smug­glers, spa own­ers and lawyers.

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