The ad that led to the arrest of a Towson massage parlor owner this month was typical for such businesses, boasting as it did of the availability of "new young girls."
"You have to ask: If they constantly have new girls, where are the other girls going?" Melissa Snow asked.
It was a rhetorical question, because as someone who works to stop sex trafficking, Snow has a pretty good idea where they go — to yet another massage parlor that similarly is offering more than rub-downs.
As The Baltimore Sun's Jessica Anderson reported last week, Di Zhang was arrested on prostitution and human-trafficking charges after police raided the massage parlor she was operating, Jade Heart Health, in a house on East Joppa Road in Towson.
Advocates like Snow, who directs anti-trafficking programs at the Towson-based women's assistance group TurnAround, were heartened by the arrest. But, they said, getting one massage parlor operator is often like a game of Whac-A-Mole— there can be entire networks that sex workers, at times under coercion, are shuttled through.
"When they do shut down one place, the girls are transferred to another person," Snow said. "These people often aren't just running one brothel."
Snow said sex workers can be transported to different locations, both to give the customers the advertised "new girls" as well as to keep tighter control over the women.
"It reduces the ability of the girls to make connections, and to get help," Snow said. "That's what the traffickers use to control the women: the isolation."
And when the workers are foreign nationals, she said, they are even more helpless because of possible language barriers and fears of deportation.
Snow couldn't speak about Zhang's case specifically because the investigation is continuing. But charging documents note that police, who had Zhang under surveillance, said she was seen "transporting Asian females … to bus stations," and that "Chinese bus services are a common way of transporting Asian females from states such as New York and Pennsylvania to Maryland so the females can work at various illegal massage parlors."
Zhang is not unknown to police — as far back as 2003, she had been arrested on prostitution charges, and she had been repeatedly investigated since then. She was arrested again in 2008, on charges of prostitution and human trafficking. And just last fall, a county detective and Homeland Security agents warned her that she could face federal and immigration charges over the prostitution and illegal massages alleged to be going on at the business. (Zhang lost her massage therapy license for failing to disclose her arrest.)
This time around, though, after a complaint from a neighbor, police put together the case that led to Zhang's arrest on March 8. According to charging documents, they interviewed a customer after he left the house on Joppa Road, who told them he received a massage and oral sex from a woman who called herself "Sylvia."
Then an undercover detective responded to an online ad offering "new young girls just arrive in town." The woman who arrived at the hotel room he used agreed to his request for sex, prompting her arrest, according to the documents. She said she worked for Jade Heart Health, and was sent to the hotel by Zhang, police said.
In some ways, the prostitution and trafficking problem is hiding in plain sight: It's pretty clear there are "spas" out there that aren't exactly offering facials and waxing, and the Internet is filled with sites and reviews of places to go for what police say Zhang was offering.
But police and advocates say these cases can be hard to nail down at times, especially if the workers have been coerced into the job.
"These criminal networks can be quite extensive," Snow said. "They could threaten these women, and their families."
Anti-trafficking activists say that Zhang's case highlights the need for tougher penalties — even though she had been arrested a couple of times previously, she was still in business.
"We have weak laws," said Lisa Carrasco, a member of the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force. The group, started in 2007, brings together state and federal law enforcement agencies and works to stop the crime and help its victims.
Carrasco said members have been trying for five years to enact a new law that would allow the state to seize certain property used in connection with human trafficking. (It is working its way through the General Assembly this session.)
"We have drug forfeiture laws," Carrasco said, "but if you're selling people, you get to keep your assets."