In an effort to curb illegal activity in local massage parlors, three women were arrested recently — and summonses were issued for two others — by the Harford County Sheriff’s Office on solicitation charges.
Human trafficking as a whole has become an issue across the country, according to Sgt. Eric Gonzalez, supervisor of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office’s Crime Suppression Unit, and offering sexual favors following massage services is one type of trafficking that is becoming more prevalent in Harford County, he said.
Massage parlors aren’t unique to Harford County, or to the region. Officers have monitored them in Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County, where two women were arrested recently on prostitution charges.
In Harford County over the last 12 to 18 months, the Sheriff’s Office has received multiple tips about alleged illegal activity at nine massage parlors in the county, Gonzalez said, and patrol deputies have also taken notice of situations that could point toward prostitution.
“I have never seen it at this level. If we can address this quickly, we can nip [massage parlors offering sexual favors] in the bud,” Gonzalez said during an interview at the Sheriff’s Office headquarters earlier this month. “They’re a nuisance to the community and it’s unfair to legitimate businesses.”
According to Gonzalez, a team of about 30 officers – Sheriff’s Office deputies and agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Homeland Security Investigations – went undercover into four massage parlors and arrested one woman each in three of the four parlors after a deputy was offered a sexual favor.
Some of the massage parlors are being operated in houses, some in storefronts, some are legitimate businesses; others are operating only to offer sexual favors to customers, Gonzalez said.
“Some don’t even bother with the massage,” Gonzalez said of the parlors where sexual favors have been offered.
Not all of them offer sexual services, he said. A few are trying to offer strictly massage services, but without being licensed.
“The ones that don’t offer, they’re trying to be as professional as they can be in a garage store massage parlor without training,” Gonzalez said.
As part of their investigation, deputies observed the massage parlors from the outside and went into them undercover, Gonzalez said.
Employees from Flushing, N.Y.
There is definitely a demand for the services they provide, he said. Deputies would watch a given place for three hours at a time, as two to three people an hour went in. At $100 each, that’s $300 an hour — all cash, Gonzalez said.
The parlor owners have few bills — rent, utilities (use of which is kept to a minimum) and food (they’re stocked with the basics of Ramen noodles and rice) — and once they’re paid, the rest is all profit. By 11 a.m., one woman had $1,200 cash in her pocket, Gonzalez said.
In all of the cases the Sheriff’s Office has investigated in recent months, every single person working in the massage parlors has been from Flushing, N.Y., Gonzalez said.
Flushing is “a hotbed for people coming from China, exclusively to supply workers on the East Coast not only for massage parlors, but most Asian businesses,” Gonzalez said.
The women charged with prostitution in Harford are Hong Cai, 54, of Flushing, N.Y., arrested in the 1700 block of Pulaski Highway in Edgewood; Mei Yu Chao, 53, of Flushing, N.Y., arrested in the 3900 block of Pulaski Highway in Abingdon; and Lanying Jin, 29, of the 200 block of West Bel Air Avenue in Aberdeen, who was arrested at the same address.
In 2013, a summons was issued for Chao by Baltimore County District Court charging her with providing massage therapy without a license; it was never served, according to online court records.
A summons was issued for the arrest of Qihong Tao, 45, of Flushing, N.Y., who was doing business in the 1400 block of South Fountain Green Road in Bel Air; she had not been served the summons as of Tuesday morning. She is charged with two counts of prostitution.
Another summons was issued Jan. 16 for Yu Hua Chen, 51, from the Elegant Asian Massage, at 101 S. Philadelphia Blvd. in Aberdeen; she is charged with prostitution.
The three who were arrested were taken to Harford County Detention Center and released on their own recognizance. Gonzalez said it’s likely Tao and Chen have left the area, either back to Flushing or another massage parlor, and likely won’t ever be arrested.
In addition to being fronts for illegal sexual activity, illegal massage parlors hurt legitimate businesses that provide massage services, he said.
In an effort to push the illegal activity and businesses out of Harford County, the Sheriff’s Office has stepped up its enforcement on massage parlors operating illegally, he said.
“Hopefully, word will get back to Flushing [N.Y.] that this is not a friendly place for this type of business and they will stop coming to Harford County,” Gonzalez said.
Baltimore, Anne Arundel issues
Similar massage parlors are also operating in Baltimore County, according to Baltimore County Police Department spokesperson Officer Jennifer Peach.
“We do have these types of cases in Baltimore County, but [detectives] would not consider them ‘prevalent,’ and we have not experienced any recent increase,” Peach said.
Anne Arundel police have arrested several women in recent years in connection with offering sexual favors at massage parlors.
In the most recent arrest Jan. 18, two women were charged with prostitution and performing massage therapy without a license following an investigation of a massage parlor on Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard in Glen Burnie, according to a report in The Capital of Annapolis, which, like The Aegis, is published by Baltimore Sun Media Group.
One of the women was from Silver Spring, the other from Brooklyn, N.Y.
In 2015, two women were charged with misdemeanor prostitution after an undercover sting at another spa on Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard. Both had home addresses in Flushing, The Capital reported.
In 2013, police arrested two women, both from Flushing, and charged them with prostitution in relation to a massage parlor on Glenbrook Road.
Such cases are still few and far between, Anne Arundel County Police Department public information officer Marc Limanski said. When police hear of an operation, they will investigate and try to make an arrest, he said.
“It’s not that common,” Limanski said. “It may happen more frequently, but these are the ones we’re becoming aware of.”
While he wouldn’t classify the massage problems as prevalent in Anne Arundel, they can be problematic, he said.
“It creates a generally unsafe environment for the regular citizenry who goes into places to receive a lawful service not realizing the activity that’s going on there,” Limanski said. “They could be placed in a compromising situation if they’re unaware of illicit activities that might be going on at these places.”
Very few cases of human trafficking have been reported in Harford County over the years, said Gonzalez of the Sheriff’s Office.
“Some of these are pretty well hidden — you wouldn’t know they were there unless you found them,” he said.
When he went through the police academy, Gonzalez had no training about human trafficking, he said. That has since changed — new deputies are learning about human trafficking in the academy and the more experienced deputies are being trained in what to look for.
Many of the indicators of illegal sexual activity at the massage parlors have been obvious, now that deputies are trained, Gonzalez said.
“It’s been an eye-opener. … So many times it’s been right in front of us and we’re missing it,’” he said.
Several months ago, the Sheriff’s Office executed search warrants at a handful of massage parlors. They seized massage tables and money. In each case, the business wasn’t licensed, Gonzalez said.
They were all back in business the next day, he said.
“We thought we could shut them down by eliminating their tables, but they were open the next day,” he said.
They bought new tables and new equipment. The county’s zoning laws “don’t have a lot of teeth” when it comes to massage parlors and police are limited in the charges they can bring, Gonzalez said.
Of concern to Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly is whether human trafficking is truly part of the equation.
“I want to find out what’s the motivation behind these people, what are they doing in these places,” Cassilly said. “Are they there of their own free will, or did they sign some contract to be a domestic servant?”
“When we run across these operations, it’s certainly a concern about who we are arresting and what are they doing there, and are they themselves victims of something bad happening,” he said.
According to Gonzalez, during their investigation, deputies sent an undercover officer into each of the places about which they had received a tip.
Detectives found the women working in the parlors would rotate every week to two weeks. Some offered sexual favors, some did not. Seldom did the favors include sexual intercourse, but other offers of pleasuring the customer. Offers of sex typically don’t come until customers have become regulars, Gonzalez said.
Most of the women working in these massage parlors are doing it voluntarily – they came to Flushing from China then answered an ad on a website like dadi360.com, Gonzalez said, citing interviews conducted by police.
“They come here, have ideas of grandeur of what it’s going to be like – they’ll make money in America,” he said. “But it’s not really like that.”
It’s easy for women to come from China because they can get a temporary visa coming from a communist country, Gonzalez said.
“They try to look for business of some type, this type,” he said. “Once they’re embedded, they’re controlled by the people who own the businesses.”
Those people aren’t necessarily nearby, he said. They could be running several businesses over a wide area.
“The more steps they are away from us seeing them, the harder they are to find,” Gonzalez said.
Many of the women continue to work in the massage parlors because of the threat of their families finding out, he said.
“There’s a lot of shame in Chinese and Asian culture in doing this,” Gonzalez said. “Men put pressure on them and say, ‘If you don’t work for me, I’ll tell your whole family back in China you’re in the sex trade. Sometimes that’s worse than physical abuse.”
During the Jan. 11 search warrants, after the women were arrested, they were questioned by deputies as well as the ICE and Homeland Security officers. The investigations are continuing to find the “money man.”
Tracking them is difficult, however, because of the language barrier. ICE and Homeland Security are able to help by providing officers who speak Chinese and Mandarin, Gonzalez said.
It’s hard to determine who the “money man” is, Gonzalez said.
Difficult to prosecute
The three women arrested, who were released from the detention center on their own recognizance, Gonzalez said it’s not likely their cases will ever be prosecuted because they’ve most likely left the county and won’t return.
The charge of prostitution is a misdemeanor and he doesn’t see the Sheriff’s Office or State’s Attorney’s Office extraditing them back to Harford.
What the Sheriff’s Office is really hoping to do by making these arrests is drive the business out of Harford County, he said.
“I think that as we aggressively enforce it, because of what we’re doing, it will get back to Flushing,” Gonzalez said. “We’re going to be known as a more difficult spot because they will lose money and the women may get arrested, which is bad for business.”
It remains to be seen if the search warrants executed so far have been effective, he said.
“We will keep up on this, we have to. The bottom line is people are aware of it now because there’s national attention to human trafficking. A lot of resources, a lot of money are being thrown at it,” Gonzalez said. “The bottom line is I don’t think we will be allowed to ignore the problem.”