Hidden in plain sight

A Sun investigative report Sunday detailing the efforts of federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies to shut down an alleged prostitution ring operating out of an unremarkable building on East Joppa Road in Towson may have prompted many readers to recall how often they had driven past the same spot without noticing anything amiss. The ring apparently was able to do business for years hidden in plain sight as its owners, who were finally arrested in March, reaped millions from forcing young women and girls into prostitution.

Since 2007, Maryland has made important progress toward shutting down such illicit enterprises, and it has taken steps to strengthen its anti-trafficking laws, including one that took effect today that will allow authorities to seize traffickers' assets. But the seeming ease with which the Towson ring accumulated a fortune for its operators and the sophisticated methods they employed to conceal their ill-gotten gains show that much remains to be done to deter those who would commit such crimes and to help their victims recover.

As Sun reporter Jean Marbella's story noted, one of the most striking things about Di Zhang, whose Jade Heart Health massage shop police say served as a cover for the Towson prostitution ring, was that she had come to the attention of the authorities as far back as 2003 on suspicion of violating massage regulations and prostitution. But the case never went to trial. In 2008, Ms. Zhang was arrested again and charged with prostitution, human trafficking and massage violations. She was convicted in that case, but the most serious charges were thrown out on appeal, and she ended up receiving just nine months of unsupervised probation and a $250 fine.

As late as 2012, Baltimore County police warned Ms. Zhang to stop "running illegal massage and prostitution businesses," and detectives noted at least five times between 2007 and 2012 when officials told her she could face charges if she didn't comply. Yet her response seems to have been to ignore the advice and to even expand her business to a second location in Perry Hall. Meanwhile, prosecutors allege, she and a male partner were also creating a series of shell companies in the U.S. and in China which they used to launder the proceeds of the prostitution ring and transform them into assets such as stocks and real estate to make it appear they were the result of legitimate businesses.

Authorities say all of the wealth generated by the alleged ring derived from the brutal exploitation of the women and girls Ms. Zhang recruited through ads in a Chinese-language newspaper in New York with promises of well-paying jobs as masseuses along with "room and board." Once the new recruits arrived, police and prosecutors say, they were forced to have sex with eight to 10 men a day and received $10 from the $70 each customer was charged, unless Ms. Zhang withheld that amount as a "room and board" charge. In effect, the women were reduced to a condition of sexual slavery by their employer, who often confiscated their passports as well, leaving them virtual prisoners of the brothel.

Ms. Zhang earned an M.B.A. degree from the University of Baltimore and doesn't fit the usual criminal profile. Yet her alleged operation was undergirded by the same elements of force, fraud and coercion common to human traffickers around the world who profit from the sexual exploitation of women and girls. In recent years, Maryland has toughened its laws against these abuses, but trafficking adult women for the purpose of prostitution is still only a misdemeanor rather than a felony, and a quirk in the law inexplicably designates even the abduction of minor for the purpose of prostitution a misdemeanor, whereas simple abduction is a felony.

At the same time, the state needs to do more to help the victims of such crimes recover. That should be one of the principal goals of the state's new asset forfeiture law, which can be used to support an array of programs run by state agencies and private nonprofits that help victims of human trafficking regain control of their lives. Lawmakers must also expand the reach of the law to those who knowingly aid or abet the traffickers, such as doorkeepers, drivers and bartenders. At the same time law enforcement needs to become more aware of the warning signs when human trafficking is occurring and of the extent and complexity of the schemes used by traffickers to hide the violence of forced prostitution from public view. Maryland must use every tool at its disposal to protect the victims and punish the perpetrators of this modern-day form of slavery.

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