From the street the faded, yellow house on Belair Road looks unassuming.
Three large picture windows overlook a community recreation center and an elementary school. It's around the corner from a community baseball diamond. On one recent visit, a small American flag lay discarded on the front lawn, along with a few scattered cigarette butts.
A metal pipe protrudes above a side door. Before the police raided this house, prosecutors said the pipe held a surveillance camera placed there by the operators that recorded the number of men who passed through the entrance, and helped monitor the women working inside.
Federal prosecutors say that the house just over the city line in Baltimore County had a name — Elite Spa — and that it was a brothel that fronted as an Asian massage parlor. Authorities raided the Overlea house in May as part of a wider investigation into prostitution in Pennsylvania, New York andNew Jersey.
Neighbors said they took note of suspicious activity — frequent visitors, reclusive occupants — but didn't really understand the full scope of what police now say went on there.
Carroll Pupa, a member of the Overlea Community Association and a resident of 43 years, said Elite came up at neighborhood meetings but most people "had no idea what it was or that it existed."
He said county zoning officials shuttered several other spas in the past two years, including one on the same block as a church, but he noted the difficulties of getting rid of the businesses. The county council enacted a law in 2001 that restricts massage parlors and other adult entertainment businesses to warehouse and manufacturing districts.
"They go in with the proper medical license, but they're fronts and nothing can be done," Pupa said. "It took us two years to finally get the raid accomplished. That's the reason the neighborhood didn't know as much, but the community leaders were aware."
Pupa said Overlea isn't alone. "They're popping up throughout the county," he said. "I understand from the code enforcement people that they've already shut down six to eight in the county in the past year." The parlors, he said, "could bring in the bad elements."
The investigation involving Elite resulted in months of work by federal and state law enforcement officers who tapped phones and tracked suspects with GPS devices hidden underneath vehicles. They even seized the camera from the drain pipe.
Police arrested five people they say are connected to five suspected brothels in four states — alleging a criminal enterprise that took proceeds and trafficked Asian women from house to house, including the one on Belair Road, and forced them to have sex with clients for money.
Michael Shen and John Ferraro, along with three others, are charged with conspiracy to defraud the government, racketeering, transporting for prostitution, coercion, failing to file factual statements about illegal immigrants and money laundering. Their attorneys did not return calls seeking comment.
Federal authorities said Elite advertised as a massage parlor, spending $70,000 on ads between October 2007 and March. Prosecutors said customers paid a flat fee for one hour — $50 to $60 — and then more in tips.
The main door of the former Elite Spa is on the side of the house, facing where a man named Matt resides. From his vantage point, he could see customers and watched what he said was a constant rotation of about 20 women over two years.
They were all of Asian descent, and all appeared reclusive. "It almost seemed like they were blindfolded," said Matt, whom The Baltimore Sun agreed to identify by only his first name because he fears for his safety. A court affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore says the women also lived in the house.
The owner of the house Matt lives in also owns the house that was raided, and Matt helps out with maintenance and looking after both places. After the police raid, he cleaned out the house to prepare it for a new tenant. It wasn't the first time he had gone inside.
He had been asked to do odd jobs and had become acquainted with several of the women, including one with whom he conversed often. Matt described the man in charge as well-dressed and always driving "really nice cars." Authorities listed a 2010 Porsche Panamera Turbo and a 2011 BMW 550i among assets they seized.
Court documents say that in one recorded conversation, Shen gave Ferraro a "honey do list," instructing which girls to rotate in and out of six massage parlors in several states. "For tomorrow take Mary (the Thai girl) to Baltimore (Elite Spa). Switch with Mina back," the documents say.
The men also frequently discussed the stock of "tools," their code word for condoms, at each location, according to the affidavit.
The 96-page court document chronicles months of phone calls between Shen and Ferraro, the two men prosecutors say headed what they called a "multistate prostitution network." During the phone calls, prosecutors say, they heard discussions of how women were shuttled between locations and money collected from them. In one intercepted conversation, Ferraro said, "This is a well over a million-dollar-a- year operation."
Matt said he helped get the women cigarettes, even though there was a convenience store just down the street. He said the women were hesitant to open the door more than a crack.
"They didn't know they were in Baltimore almost," Matt said. "They couldn't even name the street they were on." Many in the neighborhood were unaware of the operations on Belair Road. Fetching cigarettes was also how Matt became acquainted with the woman.
The woman appeared to be an anomaly in the Asian massage parlor world. During conversations with Matt, she described a family, including a son and a daughter, both in college. "She said she had a husband in Washington," he said.
According to the affidavit, the women were only entitled to keep their tips. They were also required to pay Shen and Ferraro when more "tools" were needed. But the money she did keep supported her family. "She was working to pay her mortgage," Matt said.
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, neighbors often don't realize they have a suspected brothel next door. "I think quite frequently that people don't know what they're seeing," spokesperson Andrea Austin said. "There might be suspicious behaviors, but they don't know it's a crime or who to call. It's more of a lack of understanding of what is going on."
Asian massage parlors pop up in many places, often tucked into suburban strip shopping centers, most advertising openly in newspapers and with neon signs. The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that helps women victimized by trafficking, estimates that there are more than 4,000 such parlors across the country.
There are many massage parlors in the Baltimore and Washington areas, and police sometimes raid them in prostitution cases. Authorities also use zoning laws to limit or remove the parlors, and some jurisdictions try to limit them by allowing only massage professionals licensed by local health officials to operate.
Detective Cathy Batton, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Police Department, said her agency busted one parlor last year in Timonium. Investigations take time, and require undercover work.
"When something looks like a legitimate business, it's hard to see what is actually happening unless you're inside the business to see," Batton said. "That's why we have to do a thorough investigation before we take any actions."
The raid at Elite was done by the FBI, but Baltimore County police said they received a tip about suspicious activity back in April. The affidavit filed in federal court notes that the owner of the house reported "suspicious activities" that included only men coming in and out of the building. The court document says that the person saw something thought to be a "camera mounted on the side door of the property."
Nancy Callahan, who works at the Thermo Sash building next door to the former Elite Spa, said the women did keep to themselves, but it was the clients who concerned her. "I worry about kids walking up and down the street, past there with that going on," she said.
She said once a man burst into her building looking for Elite. "I'm here by myself all day," Callahan, an administrative assistant for a window and siding company, said. "That's when I started keeping the door locked."
Callahan doesn't live in the neighborhood, and she said many of Elite's patrons did not either. "The parking lot was normally full, and the plates were always out-of-towners," she said. "They were mostly Pennsylvania tags."
Matt said he had "nothing against the girls. It was the guys that would come drunk." He said that once a friend had to stop a patron from propositioning his daughter outside their home next door to Elite.
"The girls are really the victims. They were nice as can be," Matt said.