DAVENPORT — For a lot of people, the idea of a relaxing massage after a hard day at work sounds just about right.
But in Polk County, three massages parlors just got busted in what the county sheriff, Grady Judd, called an effort to combat human trafficking.
He pledged to target more businesses in the future that are suspected of illegally selling sex for cash.
“Illicit massage businesses take in billions of dollars each year in the United States, and the people working in them are often modern day slaves, smuggled into the country with the promise of a better life, but that’s not what they get,” Judd noted. “We’re committed to keeping human trafficking out of Polk County, and we’ll continue watching these types of businesses closely.”
Four women were arrested in the sting, although Judd said at this time there’s no evidence that any of the women were victims of human trafficking. But their behavior inside the massage parlors was an issue, he added, and this was one form of adult entertainment that was a bit too adult.
One massage parlor caught up in the sting was Asian Massage at 9734 U.S. 192 in Davenport, where 53-year-old Yong Zhi Zhu and 41-year-old Yuxia Hendricks were both arrested and charged with Committing Lewd Acts, a misdemeanor.
Hendricks was also charged with Conducting Unlicensed Massage Therapy, also a misdemeanor.
And during a check at the Wellness Spa at 110 Polo Park Blvd. East in Davenport, 36-year-old Xiaoping Yuan Jung and 51-year-old Yuling Zhang Collins were both arrested and charged with Battery and Committing Lewd Acts, both misdemeanors.
The sheriff’s office noted that all four women live in the area, and were all released from jail after posting bond.
Detectives also went to three other massage businesses, which Brian Bruchey, the public information officer for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, noted “were visited and found to be in compliance.” They were:
- Touch of China Massage at 9310 U.S. 192, Suite 6, in Davenport;
- Sunny Massage at 134 California Blvd., Davenport;
- New Oriental Massage at 6000 Lucerne Park Road in Winter Haven.
“The focus of the operation was to identify possible human trafficking victims,” Bruchey noted in a release about the arrests. “At this time, there is no evidence that the four people arrested are victims of human trafficking.”
What Do Detectives Target Massage parlors?
Arrests at storefront massage parlors are frequent in Central Florida. In March 2017, the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, which conducts “vice” investigations and also investigates human trafficking, arrested three women after receiving complaints on Crimeline that they were engaging in prostitution at Bora Bora Massage and Spa on Woodward Street in Orlando. An undercover agent reported that he paid $60 for a 30-minute massage and was offered “full service” for $140.
Tipsters who called Crimeline also claimed the woman at the spa were “scantily clad.”
And earlier this year, the “Elite” massage parlor on Grove Avenue in Winter Park got raided by MBI agents.
Law enforcement doesn’t view illegal activities in massage parlors as a victimless crime, and as Judd noted, they like to point out that human trafficking is not only a very serious problem, but has become even more pervasive because of the internet. These cases, they insister, can result in a form of modern day slavery.
As an example, they note that cases of forced sex and forced labor reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline increased by 35.7 percent in 2016 alone.
And the NHTH Hotline (1-888-373-7888) points out that this is a scary and dangerous problem, noting on its website that:
“Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. This crime occurs when a trafficker uses force, fraud or coercion to control another person for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or soliciting labor or services against his/her will. Force, fraud, or coercion need not be present if the individual engaging in commercial sex is under 18 years of age.”
In Florida, for example, NHTH notes that since 2007, they have received 10,099 calls that reference Florida, and those calls led to more than 2,000 active cases. Of those cases, there were 3,586 victims who were considered to be at moderate risk for becoming human trafficking victims, and 4,985 at high risk.
How Do Online Marketplace Websites Fit Into This?
And law enforcement efforts aimed at sex trafficking do not just get directed at massage parlors. In March, the online marketplace Craigslist shut down its personals ads after Congress passed a bill to fight online sex trafficking by subjecting websites to more criminal and civil liability for the content that third parties publish on their platforms.
Craigslist responded by eliminating its personal-ad section, and posting a statement noting:
“Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day. To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through craigslist, we wish you every happiness!”
Then in April, U.S. law enforcement agencies seized and shut the sex marketplace website Backpage.com as part of an enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Law enforcement said they targeted Backpage in part to end forced prostitution and child exploitation.
There are going to be some people who shake their heads and laugh at the notion of police targeting massage parlors; they’re likely to wonder if police have solved community problems like murder, rape, domestic violence, home and car burglaries, and other more serious crimes that they have the luxury to worry about massage parlors and the ubiquitous “happy endings.”
Law enforcement, particularly those in vice units, insist this is about a far more serious and dangerous issue because of the growing prevalence of human trafficking. And they can point to local arrests.
In May, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office arrested a man, Timothy Bernard White, and charged him with selling sex with an underage runaway. He now faces charges of human trafficking of a child under 18.
Detectives said White met the girl on social media while she was living in a group home in Tampa.
So the debate over how serious a dating site like Craigslist or a local massage parlor is will undoubtedly continue.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.