If there is a common thread linking the sex trafficking industry between Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, and the Florida panhandle, it is Flushing, New York.
Although roughly a thousand miles separate ongoing criminal cases in Florida and Westmoreland County of massage parlor operators in accused of running their businesses as brothels, court documents in both states are filled with mentions of Flushing, the New York City neighborhood in Queens, that prosecutors say serves as the epicenter of America’s modern-day forced-sex trade.
It is stitched to prostitution and human trafficking through an estimated 9,000 massage parlors across the nation that generate nearly $2.5 billion annually in illicit revenue, according to Polaris, the nonprofit behind the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888).
That includes the much-publicized Jupiter, Florida, massage parlor sting operation that brought sex crime charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft in February.
Lawyers for Kraft, 78, on Tuesday sued the Florida attorney general's office, claiming it violated an open records law by not turning over certain materials in the case. Prosecutors claim video evidence shows Kraft paying for sex acts at Orchids of Asia Day Spa on consecutive days in January. He was one of hundreds of people charged in the investigation of four businesses.
Many of the women working at the Orchids spa came from China via Flushing as part of a human trafficking network which allegedly forced them to perform sex acts with customers, investigators said. The same has been said for a number of Western Pennsylvania massage parlors.
“Yes, that appears to be the case,” said Katherine A. Wymard, the Pennsylvania senior deputy attorney general who is leading the prosecution of four people arrested in March in the operation of five massage parlors in Monroeville and Murrysville.
Also accused are Chang Yu Chen, 51, of Monroeville, who was described as a handyman and manager; Huicun Wei, 47, of Flushing, owner and manager at Judy's Oriental Massage Parlor in Murrysville; and Robert Delano Yerick, 83, of Delmont, described as an administrator and handyman.
In August, federal prosecutors in Florida accused David C. Williams, 41, of Pensacola of running a network of massage parlors from the Sunshine State to Pennsylvania — including ones in Bridgeville, Carnegie, Hempfield and Turtle Creek — that exploited undocumented women and underage girls to perform sex acts for money.
Many of them flew from China to New York, where they made their way to Flushing before being sent to his various businesses, the FBI reported in court filings. Two anonymous calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline prompted the investigation, agents said.
Williams is charged with using interstate facilities for purposes of racketeering, conspiracy to commit money laundering and the harboring of illegal aliens for commercial advantage or private financial gain.
Last month, U.S. Magistrate Judge Hope T. Cannon in Pensacola denied a request from Williams to be released from jail before trial, agreeing with prosecutors that he was a risk of flight because of his many trips to China, Honduras and Vietnam, and that he would “likely continue to engage in human trafficking if released.”
Cannon also mentioned in her September opinion Williams' many connections to Flushing, holding driver's licenses of several workers at his parlors that reported residences in Flushing.
“[FBI] Agent John Canning testified for the government, describing [Flushing] as a hotbed of Chinese nationals and portal for human trafficking,” Cannon wrote.
The Flushing connection comes as no surprise to Dennis McCarty, who teaches courses on human trafficking at the State University of New York at Albany. A long-established underground pipeline of workers “mostly Asian to all 50 states” has been around for many decades, he said.
“They come to the U.S. from Asia, including China, under many different circumstances. Some are even sold by their own families against their will. Some come to work in the U.S. to pay off family debt or with the promise of better futures, and then after they get here they discover they're going to work in massage parlors,” said McCarty, a criminal justice instructor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity.
Longtime traffickers in Flushing often take workers' passports, so many of them still use a New York address when they go to work in other states, McCarty said.
“And once they get to a location where they work, they keep the workers very isolated,” he said. “There are language barriers, many don’t speak English, the threat of harm against their families back home, which also make prosecutions in these cases very, very difficult as well.”
Along with China, human trafficking victims come from Korea, Thailand and Eastern Europe, the New York Times reported this year in an article that focused on the Flushing connection to the network of illicit sex parlors nationwide and their “deep roots” to Flushing and “big-city Chinatowns.”
These parlors — which often promote services such as hourlong or hot stone massage, shiatsu and even acupuncture — also force “tens of thousands of mostly foreign women” to provide sex services that often are advertised and/or reviewed online, including on sites such as Rubmaps, The New York Times reported.
Crime rings in New York and Chicago have peddled children and young women since at least 1910 — “and that’s only as far back as I documented,” said Linda Smith, who seeks to stamp out sex trafficking through her nonprofit, Shared Hope International.
Smith, a former congresswoman from Washington State, formed the organization after leaving office in 1998. A trip to Mumbai, India, left her “appalled” at the sight of women and children kept in small stalls and sold for sex each day.
“I’ve found that the traffickers are looking for the most vulnerable. Many are young women, that’s what men are shopping for,” she said. “The customers at these parlors are looking for someone young, submissive and vulnerable enough not to have a voice because of language, and circumstances.”
The investigation into the alleged criminal activity at the Monroeville and Murrysville massage parlors took more than a year. During that time, investigators said, they watched numerous women workers arrive by bus from Flushing.
Yerick picked up young women at local bus stops. He delivered them to parlors and “shuffled” them between parlors, Wymard said. He even “housed some of the young women, requiring them to have sex with him,” she said.
Many workers often lived in the parlors, some sleeping in closets with their belongings, Wymard said.
Pennsylvania ranks fifth in the U.S. for active federal criminal human trafficking cases, with 42 in 2018, as tracked by the Human Trafficking Institute, a nonprofit headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia. Of those, 38 involved sex trafficking. Labor trafficking accounted for four.
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Federal prosecutions in Pennsylvania fell from 79 in 2017, but there have been a lot of strides in recent years, said Kyleigh Feehs, an attorney with the institute.
“Although the number of new federal human trafficking prosecutions dropped from 2017 to 2018, the data does show that the total number of federal prosecutions has increased dramatically since the enactment of the federal human trafficking statute in 2000, particularly in regard to the prosecution of sex traffickers,” she said.
“But if you really want to curb [sex trafficking], I think they’ve got to go after the buyers of these services, too,” she said. “The buyers are just as complicit as the sellers and the facilitators.”
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