Massage parlor raid photo

Asian Massage Ohio

Enlarge Image Police say many of the 18 women rescued from the Amsun Spa when they raided it earlier this year were originally from the same province in China. Asian victims of human trafficking frequently enter the U.S. through New York City, but the loose networks of traffickers have ties to the West Coast, too. The company that operated Amsun Spa was based in California.

Two wooden, hand-painted signs common in towns stuck with the “quaint” label, are posted just outside Powell Police Chief Gary Vest’s offices. One points to the O’Shaughnessy Dam and High Street, the other to Columbus and Delaware—cities 17 and 11 miles away, respectively. But your destination on this day is much closer: one-third of a mile down the road.

From the police station, you turn right onto East Olentangy Street and pass many of Powell’s vibrant storefronts, including the ultra-hip Kraft House No. 5 restaurant, Prohibition Gastro Lounge and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, ’til you’re just beyond the downtown square.

As strip malls go, the one you seek is nondescript, all brick exterior and maroon awnings, but there’s safety in this disguise, a sense of legitimacy that comes with this out-in-the-open location.

You turn into the driveway to the Powell Center strip mall, past the marquee advertising two churches, a dentist’s office and a daycare. The first business you’ll see is a travel boutique promising “One Trip to Paradise.” The sentiment might resonate with this quest, but you’re not seeking those services.

Today, you’re a monger, and you’re interested in something far more unusual: Asian massage parlors.

You heard about this particular place from fellow mongers in an Internet chat room dedicated to this interest. You’ve read their reviews, you’ve done the research. You’re ready for your own happy ending.

But this journey couldn’t be duplicated because, a matter of months later, it was all over. The parlor closed, the target moved. Your future quests shifted to any of the dozens of other illegitimate massage parlors in Central Ohio, each one placed in affluent suburbs around Columbus.

You escaped unscathed, because you were smart enough to pay cash, use a fake name, park far from the strip mall and walk to your location—all tips and tricks you learned from friends on online review websites just for Asian massage parlors.

Some of your fellow mongers weren’t so lucky. They got caught up in what was the largest human trafficking bust in Central Ohio in a decade.

On Jan. 14, police raided four locations—three Asian massage parlors and one apartment—in Powell, Worthington and Columbus. Officials believe all the locations—two under the name Amsun Massage and one called Rainbow Massage—are connected to a human trafficking ring that stretches from California to New York City to China. The same day, federal agents raided three other massage parlors in Central Ohio, also believed to be connected, but details of those raids have not been made public. Federal agents are investigating the spas’ possible role in trafficking people and money between states and internationally.

At least three people were arrested in connection to the local case. They’ve pleaded not guilty to charges, including promoting prostitution and money laundering. Two of those arrested, sisters Estella Xu, 54, of Pomona, California, and Qing Xu, 57, of Columbus, were free on bail while awaiting trial. Qing Xu’s husband, Xiao Shuang Chao, 56, of Columbus, remained in the Delaware County jail.

The targeted massage parlor sites have been closed, but others could be waiting to replace them. The demand from mongers is simply too strong. Illegitimate massage parlor operators know this, and they’re eager to cash in. Supply, in other words, isn’t lacking.

According to a 2014 study by the liberal-leaning think tank Urban Institute on the underground commercial sex industry in eight U.S. cities, the total industry—inclusive of Asian massage parlors, brothels, street-level prostitution and other sources—fetched between $39.9 and $290 million in 2007, depending on the city.

This demand led to the opening of nearly 600 new illicit massage parlors in the U.S. from 2011 to 2013, pushing the total number to almost 4, 800, according to the Urban Institute. A lot of that growth occurred in the South and Midwest, two markets that were previously largely untapped. But it’s hard to know exactly how many are operating in Ohio, and that’s by design.

“[The massage parlors] present themselves as legitimate businesses, so it’s not like you often see something that alarms you or that would make an adjacent business call in, ” says one Columbus vice detective, who asked we not use his name because he works undercover. “People going to these places know why they’re going there, but they’re not going to call the police.”

Police investigations are based in part on online reviews of massage parlors in Central Ohio; mongers on just one of these massage parlor-specific review sites have reviewed 27 parlors in Central Ohio in the last several years.

Exact figures on how many women are trafficked into the sex trade in Ohio, and specifically into Asian massage parlors, aren’t known. That’s partly because the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission lumps all human trafficking victims together, whether they were involved in the sex trade (Asian massage parlors, street prostitution) or the labor trade (nail salons). The nature of how Asian massage parlors operate also makes it difficult to arrive at a reliable estimate, says Celia Williamson, a professor of social work at the University of Toledo who specializes in human trafficking. Williamson also chairs the commission’s research and analysis committee, making her one of the state’s lead resources on documenting this issue.

“We can’t tell you specifically how many people are forced into massage work or domestic servitude every year, because we know the women that work in those massage parlors are typically moved around frequently from massage parlor to massage parlor and city to city, ” Williamson says.

The commission estimates 783 foreign women are trafficked in Ohio every year, whether for an Asian massage parlor, a nail salon or other work. That estimate is considered low, Williamson says.

The commission came up with its figures for Ohio through forecasting models that estimate the size of the foreign human trafficking trade in the United States at large. Those models consider factors like the number of immigrants in a city. “When you have a hidden, underground group of people, you can’t definitively say, ” Williamson says. “It’s not the best way [to estimate the number of victims], but it’s the way you have to begin.”

Williamson says Asian massage parlors represent one of the most difficult aspects of human trafficking to research and understand because there are so many barriers to the women.

The only people who have access to the victims are their customers and their captors, and the women are moved from city to city frequently; captors don’t want the women to learn too much about their location or form relationships with repeat customers who could help them escape. The women are also moved, Williamson says, to keep fresh faces in front of customers and make sure the women remain ignorant of U.S. cultural norms.

“[The women often] don’t even know we’d consider them victims of a crime, ” Williamson says.

The victims and their captors are also often from the same ethnic group or might know each other’s families, so the threat of violence against relatives at home also looms. The victim’s family can be blacklisted by their captors, thus ruining any chance other family members might have of getting assistance to flee their home country.

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