Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 17th 2019

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No Happy Ending

By Rick Outzen

A series of raids of local Asian massage parlors have uncovered a multi-state human trafficking operation in our quiet, family-oriented community. Some may be shocked but not our congressman and law enforcement.

Last April, Rep. Matt Gaetz met with law enforcement agencies to discuss the rise of Asian massage parlors across his district (“Sex & Massage Parlors,” 5/2/19).

“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.”

According to Gaetz, some of the key indicators of illegal activity at the massage parlors are women asking for a large tip, a locked front door, covered windows, a regular rotation of women who live at the business and advertisements on commercial sex websites.

Asian Massage Parlors
On Aug. 16, U.S. Attorney Lawrence Keefe announced the raids on several massage parlors owned by Pensacola resident David C. Williams, 41, for using interstate facilities for purposes of racketeering, money laundering conspiracy and the harboring of illegal aliens for commercial advantage or private financial gain.

The three-count criminal complaint alleged Williams was arrested in connection with his operation of multiple Asian massage parlors in Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania where over ever a dozen search warrants were also executed.

An affidavit filed last week in federal court in Pensacola laid out the investigation that led to the raids. The document revealed many of the indicators of human trafficking named by Rep. Gaetz in April were allegedly taking place at Williams’ businesses.

In July 2017, the FBI received two anonymous tips through the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The tips indicated the massage parlors located at 7055 Fairfield Drive, Pensacola, and 1800 Beck Avenue, Panama City, were possibly using under-aged females and offering sexual acts for additional money during the massage sessions.

During an initial investigation by the FBI, the Panama City Police Department sent a Confidential Informant (CI) to purchase a massage at the Panama City location. Shortly after the massage started, the CI was offered sexual acts for additional money by an Asian female. The CI refused any sexual acts, at which time the Asian female providing the massage continued for only a brief time and then informed the CI the massage was complete.

According to Bay County Clerk of Court records, Williams in March 2017 purchased 1800 Beck Avenue in March 2017 for $135,000. He also filed Articles of Organization for a Limited Liability Company for “1800 Beck Massage LLC” with the state of Florida.

In late October 2017, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office (ECSO) responded to a complaint about possible prostitution at 7055 Fairfield Drive. Williams identified himself as a co-owner of the business. While ECSO was present, Williams removed a camper, which was owned and registered to him, located behind the building—one of the NHTH tips received by the FBI indicated Asian females were living in an RV behind this business location.

Two months later, the ECSO returned to the business to investigate a suspicious person complaint. Upon arrival, Williams let the deputy accompany him inside the business and talk with the three Asian female workers.

One masseuse produced a New York state identification card and a Florida massage therapist license that had expired 8/31/17. Another provided a California state identification card and Florida massage therapist license. The third could not produce any identification at first. A later a friend brought her Chinese passport, U.S. employment card that had expired 7/24/17 and Florida massage therapist license.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported one female had been arrested at a Utah Massage parlor and was under investigation for providing sex acts to customer. Another was in the immigration databases and was subject to deportation since her visa had expired in January 2009.

The affidavit listed 22 massage parlor locations in four states that were found to be associated with Williams through law enforcement reporting, electronic federal search warrant results, and corporate and government records.

Three massage parlors are in Escambia County—7055 Fairfield Drive, 704 Massachusetts Avenue and 127 N. New Warrington Road. One is in south Santa Rosa County—3268 Fordham Parkway.

Backpage.com
Court documents showed how Williams used the website backpage.com to advertise his massage parlors. Backpage was launched in 2004 by New Times Media, a publisher of 11 alternative newsweeklies, as a free classified advertising website. Several alt-weeklies published its classified ads on the back page of their publication.

The classified advertising website became the largest marketplace for buying and selling sex. Federal law enforcement agencies seized it in April 2018. Its CEO, Carl Ferrer, pled guilty to charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering. As part of his plea agreement, Ferrer agreed to shut down the site and give its data to law enforcement.

In November 2017, backpage.com provided the FBI records regarding advertisements associated with telephone numbers related to its human trafficking investigation. An analysis of the records revealed 25 telephone numbers and five email addresses linked to backpage.com ads for various massage parlor locations directly tied to Williams and his partner.

The total number of backpage.com ads connected to Williams and his partner was approximately 6,827, costing about $63,952. Of those ads, nearly 5,274 were associated with multiple locations in Florida.

The ads consisted of describing “new cute girls,” “getting your kinks rubbed out by an Asian hottie” and other such similar descriptions, which tended to focus on the Asian females and used sexually-suggestive wording.

During the investigation, over 100 Chinese nationals were found to have direct ties to Williams or his partner and their suspected businesses. The names of those who worked in the Pensacola area, approximately 28 females, were submitted for query within various DHS immigration databases.

Approximately 16 of those women utilized a “last known address” within New York, with a dozen originating from Flushing, N.Y., despite all being physically located at establishments in Florida. During the investigation, Flushing was identified to be a “hotbed” of illegal activity. Illegal aliens utilized various Flushing addresses as a central address and point of contact while they continued to move about the country—frequently working in prostitution.

In summary, the affidavit stated that there was probable cause to believe Williams owns/operates multiple massage parlors that are held in nominee names. He staffs them with Asian females, who appear to be illegally present in the United States, that engage in illicit sexual acts with massage customers, and he utilizes bank accounts associated with the massage parlors to clean the funds garnered from the criminal activity.

Fear, Force, Coercion
As an attorney who fights against human trafficking, Troy Rafferty wasn’t surprised to hear about the raid on Asian massage parlors. He saw them as part of a much larger network that exploits young women and men for sex and profit. His firm, Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor, has filed mass tort cases against the hospitality industry for the alleged role it plays in human trafficking.

“You can’t hear or read about the stories of these victims and not get involved,” said Rafferty. “What we found as we’ve gotten into this litigation is that it’s not just the traffickers who are making money from the trafficking. It’s all types of businesses that are condoning and profiting greatly from trafficking.”

He continued, “For example, the hospitality industry and the hotels, just because they have executives sitting in boardrooms in their Armani suits doesn’t make them any less responsible for the trafficking that they profit from than the pimp or the trafficker who’s selling these young kids.”

Rafferty was talking about some of the largest hotel chains in the country that operate in Las Vegas, New York City, Miami and large metropolitan areas that host Super Bowls, World Series and numerous conventions—places where hotels benefit financially and turn a blind eye as “people come in and pay cash for the room for multiple days at a time, week after week after week, and walking by the front desk every day with young girls and boys who are sold for sex.”

“Traffickers are patient and sometimes start targeting their young victims six months to a year before they take control of them,” said Rafferty. “They’ll target them on social media. They’ll target runaways or any child who would seem vulnerable to a trafficker. Trafficking victims do not just come from one type of family or background. It’s not just a poor child. Some come from rich families, any child who gets in the wrong place at the wrong time and then somebody just happens to give them the wrong kind of attention.”

Rafferty wanted to make clear that prostitution, whether in a massage parlor, casino or on the street, is not a victimless crime.

“They are being forced to engage in these sex acts, but it’s not always bound force,” he said. “It’s an emotional and mental force. These traffickers invoke great fear into their victims.”

He explained, “They say, ‘Now you’re going to do this or I’m going to tell your family that you’ve slept with 10 guys,’ or, ‘You do this or I’m going to send you off back to wherever you came from,’ or, ‘You do this, you’re back on the street,’ or, ‘You don’t do this, and we’re chasing you.’ It’s just all of these mind games and traumatizing threats that prevent victims from escaping.”

Rafferty said, “Who chooses to look down the street and say, ‘I’m going to sleep with the next 10 people’? Who chooses that? The victims are entrapped into this life through fear, force and coercion.”