Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday May 21st 2019

Archives

Sex & Massage Parlors

By Rick Outzen

Last week, Congressman Matt Gaetz called together top local, state and federal law enforcement officials, including Escambia County David Morgan, Walton County Sheriff Mike Atkinson and U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe, and his Faith Advisory Board to discuss the increase of illicit massage parlors in Northwest Florida and how to shut them down.

“Rolling from my house in Fort Walton to my office in Pensacola, I pass more than a dozen places that are offering Asian massage, with hours of operation that exceed well into the p.m. hours and have blacked out storefronts,” said Gaetz. “There may be some of those that are operating legitimate massage, but it seems to be a real increase in the amount of that activity that’s occurring.”

He said that while serving as Criminal Justice chairman in the Florida House, he heard testimony and saw data that showed “a nexus between these establishments and the movement of humans against their will.”

The latest statistics for 2018 show that 86 percent of the victims of human trafficking are female. Gaetz said, “I thought it was pretty noteworthy that the largest group are between the ages 9 and 17. That was really striking to me.”

In the materials handed out, the congressman pointed out there are an estimated 9,000 illicit massage parlors in the U.S.–more than Starbucks’ 8,222 locations. In 2018, Florida had 376 cases of human trafficking reported to the national hotline. Only California (760) and Texas (455) had more.

Polaris is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that works to combat and prevent modern-day slavery and human trafficking. In 2017, Polaris analyzed more than 32,000 cases of human trafficking from the National Human Trafficking Hotline and developed a classification system that identifies 25 distinct types of human trafficking in the United States.

Trafficking related to massage parlors accounted for 2,949 cases—second in prevalence only to trafficking in escort services.

The key indicators of illegal activity happening at massage parlors are:
•Service prices significantly below market-level.
•Women asking for a large tip.
•Women servicing customers for excessive hours or being “on call.”
•Serves primarily male customers.
•Locked front door; customers only enter if they buzz in or enter through side or back doors.
•Windows are covered or blacked out.
•Regular rotation of women; new women coming every few weeks.
•Advertisements on commercial sex websites.

It’s not a coincidence that many of the parlors that have popped up over the past few years advertise Asian massages. According to Polaris, women from China, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam are vulnerable to exploitation.

They usually arrive in the United States after responding to an employment ad in their home country. They come with debt for travel/smuggling fees and get entrapped with ongoing debts such as fees for housing, hygiene products, groceries, bail and attorney fee. Their handlers hit them with additional charges for breaking parlor rules. Victims are controlled by shame, threats to their family and fear of deportation and law enforcement.

Gaetz handed out a list of 39 reported illicit massage parlors in his congressional district; seven were in Escambia County and six in Santa Rosa County.

Supercharged Prosecution
While serving in the Florida House, Gaetz wrote legislation (2013 HB 7005), which passed, that he said “gave law enforcement supercharged abilities to be able to go into a massage establishment and demand the presentation of ID. In the absence of that ID, it gives you an ability to declare them a nuisance.”

The law also states the parlors can’t advertise to induce customers into sexual misconduct, operate between hours of midnight and 5 a.m. or use the establishment to live as a principal domicile.

In February, the Martin County Sheriff’s Office led a multi-agency investigation that led to several massage parlors being shut down and numerous arrests, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

“They caught the folks down in Martin County through the utilization of a massage establishment as a place of domicile,” said Gaetz. “What we’ve seen is that they know about the hours of operation limitation, and so they will try to stay out of that blacked out period. But one thing you can’t hide if you’re trafficking people is that they live there.”

He continued, “What helped in Martin County is they continued to see folks taking out garbage that was residential garbage. There was evidence of people living there, and so that’s a way you can see people getting them now.”

Gaetz encouraged religious leaders to take advantage of the law. One of the extraordinary remedies is when any nuisance exists, the Attorney General, state attorney, city attorney, county attorney or any citizen of the county may sue in the name on the state to enjoin the nuisance.

The court can issue a permanent injunction and order court costs to be paid by the person establishing or maintaining the nuisance. Liens can be placed on all personal property found in the business.

“You can bring nuisance claims in court, which is, I think, a really good project for some of our nonprofits, some of our kind of the armies of passion that we have gathered to say, ‘We have skin in the game,’” the congressman said.

“I mean, we’re always talking in our faith chats about how do you get the broader congregation, in a wider the sense of the word, engaged and active?” said Gaetz. “This is a way to say we’re not going to put up with this garbage in our community.”

Innovative Approaches
Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Williams is the human trafficking coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida. Over the past four years, he has prosecuted 18 human traffickers in Gainesville.

“One thing that I found in almost all of my cases is they’re almost all gang related, because human trafficking is a profit-driven business. That’s what it’s all about,” said Williams. “And I want you to know I’ve found the key to success in prosecuting these cases. If you can help these victims deal with the trauma throughout the course of the prosecution, you’re going to win your case. Now, that doesn’t matter if it’s a child or an adult.”

He explained, “I had 16 women that were being trafficked by a pimp. And out of those, I figured I had six that I could put on the stand, and when it came time for trial, I had one. OK, that guy got 20 years on that one victim. That case was tough. It was very, very difficult.”

Williams said that he has learned law enforcement must “use every means at our disposal if we are serious about stopping human trafficking.” He praised Gaetz’s approach for going after parlors as nuisances as a “clever, unique approach.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t know this already, human trafficking has been with us since the dawn of man,” said Williams. “And guess what? We have used the same technique year after year after year to try to stop this. And has it worked? No. So it’s time for us to be innovative and to come at this with a new approach, new solutions if we are serious about dealing with this.”

The federal prosecutor pointed out several websites that promote selling sex.

“Take out your phone; dial in an app called Skipthegames. OK, go to that site, go to United States, Florida, and type in Pensacola, and look at it, and you tell me what’s going on,” he said. “We’re talking about blatant human trafficking, spit-in-your-face human trafficking. We’re not talking about behind closed doors, with shaded windows, at one o’clock in the morning. I’m talking about right now, right here in this community. Women, children being trafficked. What are we going to do about that?”

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said that his agency has taken a “robust approach” to prostitution and human trafficking, but the victims’ lack of follow-through has made prosecution difficult.

“When we show up with our evidence into court, and I’ve got a victim that doesn’t show up, or I have a victim that’s decided they’re not going to testify, or they wanted to re-enter the life, your case falls apart,” said Morgan.

Two victim advocates attended the meeting and offered their help—Stephanie McMinn, founder and executive director of BeGenerous, Inc., and her board member Sula Skiles. BeGenerous is a faith-based nonprofit organization that helps in assisting in the rescue, recovery and rehabilitation of those in addiction and trafficking. McMinn also serves on the Circuit One Human Trafficking Task Force.

“I’m a survivor of sex trafficking and work here locally with victims of trafficking helping them get away from their pimps and assisting with aftercare and the inner-healing process,” said Skiles. “Something very unique that I can offer to our community is the ability to really relate to those that are being trafficked and help them to self-identify, which most of the time is very hard for them to do. We’ve seen so many girls who are able to start understanding the trauma that they’ve been through, and we help get them to a place that they can start healing.”

Sheriff Morgan said, at times, he has felt like he’s playing the whack-a-mole game—stopping prostitution in one area, only to see it pop up elsewhere. He said, “That’s what you’re playing. Most of it now is, it’s not based on a business but is out-call services. It’s spread—you pick up the phone call for a massage, they come to your house.”

Gaetz responded, “I hear you, but for me, if we do whack-a-mole across my whole district, I’d be pretty happy. I know that there is a fungible nature to this activity because it’s gang-related, because they’re, at times, transactional crime organizations. But if you can, if you’re saying the reason that a lot of our cases fall through is a lack of victim cooperation, this is a tool.”

He continued, “I think you’re right, it’s not the only tool, but this is a tool where victim cooperation is not necessary at all. You just have to show people who are living there.”

The congressman said his massage-establishment law makes it far easier to close illicit parlors. He said, “You don’t have to make out a case for the elements of human trafficking to prevail that a massage establishment is violating the terms of this law. If you prove that they are living there, then not only do prosecutors have the right for the injunctive relief, or the court says, ‘You have to shut this thing down in 72 hours,’ but then groups can go and shut them down yourself.”

Gaetz added, “If you have proof of domicile, right, then you don’t have to prove the other elements. Hopefully, this statute provides a different way to achieve that accountability without having to prove the very hard elements of trafficking.”

Getting Serious
Assistant U.S. Attorney Williams didn’t want to leave the meeting without making one more point. Over the years, he has made several presentations on human trafficking. Most of the discussions are about being reactive to the situation.

“Everything we’re talking about is pouring resources in the dealing with the aftermath of what happened to these victims,” he said. “What resources are we pouring into stopping these from happening, addressing the true evil that’s bringing sex trafficking? And what is that? Men buying sex.”

The demand is driving human trafficking, and it’s a profit-driven business operating in a capitalist system. People are going to step in, and they’re going to make money, according to Williams

“Until we really get serious about that, we are never going to stop this. It’s impossible,” said Williams. “Whether it’s in a massage parlor, a nail salon, an escort service, whatever it is, folks, it’s going to keep going on as long as men buy sex. So, let’s get serious.”

———————————————————————————-

For more information on human trafficking, visit polarisproject.org. Or call the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888.