I-Team: Sex trafficking pipeline leads to western Massachusetts massage parlors

From 2009 to 2011, police raided several Asian massage parlors in western Massachusetts

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) - Promises of jobs, money, and opportunities that quickly turn into sex trafficking, and it's happening right in our backyard.

"Although we may not think of Springfield or western mass as maybe a hub of trafficking, the reality is that trafficking is everywhere," said Chris Muller of Restore NYC.

You see Asian massage parlors in just about every city and town, but are they legitimate businesses or a front for human trafficking? The term "massage parlor" actually means a front for prostitution, and it's a profitable business where the massage parlor owner can make up to $25,000 a month.

A 22News I-Team investigation reveals where many of these women are coming from and we'll show you why previous massage parlor arrests didn't amount to much.

In December, raids shut down several Asian massage parlors in western Massachusetts. In two separate investigations, several women and one man were arrested and face human trafficking charges.

The I-Team discovered a pipeline of trafficking that begins in New York City. "Queens, we see as a major hub for trafficking period. Flushing in particular is a very vibrant and thriving east Asian community particularly for Chinese immigrants," said Muller.

The I-Team traveled to New York and spoke with Muller, a service provider who helps human trafficking victims. He said these women are sent up the I-95 and I-91 corridor to work; "They come to the U.S. and are connected immediately to someone who is actually filled with ill-intent and is looking to traffic and exploit them for commercial sex."

Not every Asian Massage Parlor is a front for human trafficking, but you can go to websites like backpage.com and see ads like promising new masseuses from New York City who will relieve your stress, while showing pictures of young Asian women. Another website rubmaps.com lets users share reviews of their experiences. One topic even warning people about the western Massachusetts raids.

From 2009 to 2011, police raided several Asian massage parlors in western Massachusetts. The I-Team went through court records and discovered most charges were dismissed. Just one person, Sanyu Zheng, was found “guilty” and fined  $150 for operating an unlicensed massage parlor, Korean Massage Therapy in East Longmeadow in 2011.

There are several other arrests below we will detail, but won't be identifying them since they may have been trafficked themselves.

Person A was arrested in Agawam in 2010. She was charged with unlicensed operation of a massage parlor and permitting a premises to be used for prostitution. That case was dismissed in 2014.

Person B had her 2009 case dismissed after probation. Zheng lived in Flushing. She was charged with performing sexual acts at Jane Spa's and Hadley Massage Therapy in Hadley.

Person C was also from Flushing, she had her 2011 case dismissed. She was arrested in a raid at Korean Massage Therapy in East Longmeadow, she was charged with unlicensed massage and sexual conduct for a fee.

Person D had her 2011 case dismissed after six months probation. She was also involved with Korean Massage Therapy in East Longmeadow. She was charged with unlicensed massage.

Person E had her 2009 case dismissed. She was charged with operating an unlicensed massage facility and allowing the premise to be used for prostitution. That was for raids at Chinese Massage on Belmont Street in Springfield and Maple Street in Longmeadow.

The I-Team requested the state's active massage therapist licenses, we discovered that three of the people arrested in previous western Massachusetts raids still had active licenses. Well, they were never convicted.

"Often times people aren't imprisoned, they pay the fine and move on to the next set of trafficking activities that they're going to pull off," said Donna Sabella, a human trafficking expert at professor at UMass. She said the victims are usually afraid to testify; "You're watched every minute."

A 2012 human trafficking law is why Attorney General Maura Healey believes these charges from the December raids will stick. "We're going to enforce that law we're going to go after human traffickers. We're also going to go after those people who buy sex, this is about the exploitation of another person," said AG Healey.

In Massachusetts, there are 40 licensed massage therapists with a Flushing, NY Address. Chun Nu Li who allegedly ran the Feeding Hills Spa, which was raided in December, was arrested in Flushing.

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