Authorities have taken several people into custody following a months-long investigation into Utah County massage parlors.
These investigations were prompted after detectives received several reports of human trafficking, patterns of unlawful activity, prostitution, aiding prostitution, money laundering, and multiple nuisance violations, according to the probable cause statement filed in support of the arrests.
Officials with the American Fork Police Department received an anonymous complaint from a citizen on Sept. 22.
The complaint started that “the new Asian massage parlor” located at 376 E. 60 South in American Fork had listings on an online website that advertises “happy ending” massages. The report also stated that men would go into the parlor, undress and the masseuse would begin the service before beginning to touch the client inappropriately, adding if the man did not complain, the masseuse would continue and offer more.
Detectives opened an investigation into the massage parlor, identified as Sunflower Massage, and searched the business license to identify the owner.
Authorities discovered the woman who owned Sunflower Massage also owned Relax Wood LLC in Orem and Small Rainbow in Orem. She is also known to frequent Magic Massage in American Fork. Detectives began following the business owner and discovered that she travels between the four massage parlors, according to the probable cause statement.
Detectives stated in arrest documents that Asian massage parlors often establish themselves in small strip malls and advertise their businesses by placing neon signs, window coverings with “Zen-type” images, or signs reading “Asian massage” around the outside of the location.
These businesses, according to authorities, also apply for business licenses with local governments, adding that the names listed on the applications to indicate ownership “are often difficult to understand” because Chinese names start with the last name, which can “usually (disassociate) them from any type of driver’s license database since the United States typically lists first name first, and last name last.” Additionally, many applicants have out-of-state driver’s licenses and addresses, many of which are tied to Southern California.
Often times, Asian massage parlors also apply for business licenses several times each year, changing the name of the business as well as the owner’s name and information only slightly. These changes are not reflected in the store fronts, however, nor do the businesses operate under the new name.
“This tactic is commonly used by the Asian criminal organizations to thwart law enforcement from criminal investigations,” according to the probable cause affidavit.
Officials began physical and electronic surveillance of the parlors and determined that the female masseuses appeared to be living at the parlors they work at as the detectives rarely witnessed the female staff leave.
These parlors are staffed with Asian females, some of whom are forced to live in small closets or rooms within the business location and are given minimal means for survival. These women “fall into a world of human trafficking and become victims in their own right,” detectives state in arrest documents.
If the women do not live on massage parlor premises, they often live with other women who are also victims of the human trafficking organization in apartments or homes that are owned or rented by members of the organization. Rarely, if ever, are the women involved the parlors allowed to leave their respective businesses as a means to control the women and keep them involved, the report says.
Criminal organizations often threaten to contact the families of the women who are being trafficked to tell their families they are voluntarily prostituting themselves, which would jeopardize their family honor. These women often times live in fear of what would happen if they left the criminal organizations or go against their wishes, causing them to fall deeper into the human trafficking organization, according to arrest documents.
Detectives also performed several undercover operations, sending officers into the parlors as patrons. During the operations, according to arrest documents, each of the four massage parlors allegedly solicited sexual acts in exchange for payment. Each time, the detectives declined the solicitation.
Additionally, police performed several “John stops” on customers leaving the parlors. On each occasion, male customers stated “happy ending” massages were offered.
A concerned citizen filed a report on Dec. 14, stating there was an older, white man in a Chevrolet pickup truck that had taken an Asian woman from the Sunflower Massage parlor to a Lindon residence. Detectives had seen this same truck at Relax Wood LLC on several different occasions.
At this time, detectives also began investigating a website that reviews Asian massage parlors that offer sexual services, finding several reviews each for three of the four locations. Several of the reviews stated, for an additional fee, the female masseuses would perform sexual acts.
On Feb. 1, detectives performing physical surveillance of Relax Wood LLC observed two women leave the parlor and enter a white Mercedes. The Mercedes took the women to the residence in Lindon, where one of the women went inside and the other remained in the vehicle before leaving the area.
An officer who had participated in an undercover operation identified the driver as one of the women who provided a massage and solicited sexual acts earlier that day.
These organizations often have a headquarters where members hold money, transaction books, files, passports, identification documents and other valuable items.
Detectives served several search warrants throughout Utah County on Feb. 4, making contact with multiple individuals allegedly involved in the organization, transporting each of them to the American Fork Police Department, according to the probable cause affidavit.
One of the women told police she had come from China to the United States to “practice her religion of choice,” according to arrest documents, stating that she had worked for the parlor for about three weeks, that she was instructed to charge $60 for a one-hour massage and $50 for a half-hour massage. Of that, the woman would receive $10-$20 in cash.
The woman told police she did not know who her boss was, adding that she was not allowed to leave the parlor or go anywhere without being told. According to police, the woman stated she lived and cooked her food at the parlor.
Often times, she reported, her customers would make sexual gestures, but the woman told police she refused them, remembering her husband and son in China.
The woman would often use the terms “them,” “they” or “us” to describe the people involved in the organization before correcting herself to say “I” or “me.” Detectives believe this was because she was fearful of the people who had placed her in the parlor.
When police asked who had brought her to Utah, she often said she did not remember or that she didn’t want to talk about it. Additionally, the woman did not know any of the area or of the cities she was in.
Law enforcement officials told the woman they believed she was being trafficked, and she became emotional, thanking authorities for their help. Officials provided the woman with victim services, where detectives and the Asian Association of Utah worked to get her hotel rooms, food and money.
Detectives began to listen to jail phone calls that were recorded by the jail database. In the calls, police heard individuals speaking about transporting the woman to Chicago. Shortly after, authorities discovered the woman had contacted the Asian Association of Utah, asking them to help her leave Utah and travel to Chicago.
“Detectives believe that the victim was contacted by members of the organization and was being forced back into trafficking,” officials wrote in the probable cause affidavit. “The victim told detectives that she has no family in the United States, and no associates locally.”
On Feb. 6, detectives observed a white GMC Terrain pull up to the Delta terminal at the Salt Lake International Airport, the same terminal where a flight to Chicago was leaving. The vehicle dropped off two Asian women — who each had suitcases — before driving away from the terminal. Detectives made contact with the woman they had been watching and the two individuals who had left the GMC. They also performed a traffic stop of the vehicle.
The GMC driver reportedly told detectives she had no idea what was going on, stating that she was only helping a friend. Authorities performed a record search of the phone number logged into other organization members’ phones under the name “Laoban,” which translates to “boss,” and discovered that the phone number returned to the woman driving the vehicle.
Officials also obtained search warrants for the suitcases and cell phones found in the two other women’s possessions. During the search, detectives discovered a passport, identifying documents and incriminating documents belonging to the woman asking to travel to Chicago as well as a couple change of clothes and about $40,000 in jewelry and other merchandise. Carrying jewelry and bags is often a method of transferring wealth in an attempt to conceal the source, according to arrest documents.
Police took 34-year-old Jing Wang and 60-year-old Xiaoxia Liu — both of Chicago — into custody under the suspicion of second-degree felony human trafficking, second-degree felony money laundering, second-degree felony pattern of unlawful activity, third-degree felony tampering with a witness, and class B misdemeanor prostitution.
Previously, authorities had detained 44-year-old Yan Tomney of American Fork, 36-year-old Jun Yan Li, of Orem, 42-year-old Xiao Ling Wang of American Fork, 56-year-old Ju Ying Wang of American Fork, 39-year-old Yue Ming of Orem, and 54-year-old Joseph Edward Ferreri of Salina under the suspicion of similar charges.
Detectives are currently unaware if all human trafficking victims have been recovered, and the investigation is still ongoing.