By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
What began as an illicit sex/prostitution investigation by the Seattle Police Department (SPD) morphed into something more sinister. On Feb. 28, after years of following leads, gathering evidence, and interviewing witnesses, SPD led a multi-agency raid of massage parlors in the Chinatown-International District (ID) and beyond.
The operation was set in motion with a pre-dawn meeting of over 150 officers, including FBI special agents and professional interpreters. Before the roosters had time to crow, the group fanned out and executed search and arrest warrants at five houses and 12 massage parlors, with seven parlors being in the ID. Two patrons were arrested but released.
SPD’s Capt. Mike Edwards, Commander of the Internet Crimes Against Children Unit, said the case has many layers with a group of individuals in control.
“It didn’t just happen. There was an organized effort.” However, he stopped short of connecting it to organized crime.
Edwards said this operation is focused not only on the criminal elements but also on victim assistance. Processing the information is hampered by cultural and language constraints. The 26 female victims were from China and spoke Cantonese and Mandarin, the oldest being 62 years old.
SPD is reviewing them “case by case,” rendering support and referring them to social services when deemed appropriate.
According to Lt. Jim Fitzgerald, head of SPD’s High-risk Victims Section, the case began in 2015, with neighborhood complaints of suspected prostitution at ID massage parlors. Subsequent undercover operations at these locations yielded unsolicited sex offerings. Rumors circulated that teenage girls were employed, but further undercover operations proved that to be untrue.
SPD, working with federal partners, had hoped to prosecute federally a year ago, but it didn’t pan out. Fitzgerald said the federal agencies would have the capability of “following the money across the world.” Fitzgerald wants to know where the money is going.
Balancing the act of appeasing the community, who wanted these massage parlors gone, Fitzgerald’s team worked “to take out the head of the snake.” The two female and three male owners arrested — all from China — ran the targeted 12 parlors. Fitzgerald did not want to name the parlors. All five owners were arrested at their homes, four in Seattle, one in Federal Way. The extent of their involvement is still being investigated. It is likely the five may merely be middle managers.
Travel agencies in Southern California, suspected to be the hub of the West Coast operation, were used to lure these women into the country, sometimes as tourists, sometimes as students. From Southern California, these women were flown elsewhere — many to the Seattle area.
SPD surveillance revealed one owner picking up eight women at Sea-Tac airport and taking them to the massage parlor. The subtle coercion came in the form of the women being in a foreign land, speaking no English, being without transportation, and being misled as to the nature of their employment. The owners offered no medical help and held the women’s passports. The newcomers had no social circle but the massage parlor.
Fitzgerald said the women may be making more money than they’d make in China, but weren’t living the life they’d envisioned in the United States. They became indentured servants.
Fitzgerald considers the women victims. The Department of Homeland Security had a presence during the raid but mainly because there was a human trafficking element. SPD, with available community resources, is working to help these women gain legitimate residency.
“You can lead a horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink,” Fitzgerald said. “You do your best in trying to help them.” Fitzgerald hopes they will leave this, live a normal life, and perhaps lead them to the head of the snake.
Human trafficking is modern day slavery. Many prosecutors are hoping to curb the problem by targeting the customers, not the massage providers, and going for the owners of these businesses, not the employees. And true to many of these cases, money is king. Following the money may lead to the throne.
A recent New York Times article reported 9,000 illegitimate massage parlors operating in the United States, making it a multi-billion-dollar business. The East Coast hub is Flushing, Queens.
With the arrest of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft during the Jupiter, Fla. massage parlor raid, these cases surfaced as a reminder of the age-old disease of human trafficking. Kraft is not charged with trafficking. But in the shadow of the flickering neon signs, in the guise of a healing art, modern day slavery continues to exist.
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.