Since late November, Horry County police have arrested nine workers — all Asian women over 35 years old — on prostitution charges at six local massage businesses.
Typically conducted by police during the slower winter months, these routine raids rarely stop the illegal activity. Most of the businesses have been busted multiple times for prostitution and continue operating.
Increasingly, law enforcement agencies in other parts of the country are finding that a weightier crime is happening than prostitution. Massage workers arrested in cases similar to those in Horry County have been identified as victims of human trafficking. Lured to the U.S. under false promises of legitimate work, the women are manipulated into performing illegal sex acts by traffickers who use threats and coercion to control nearly every aspect of the women’s lives — from where they live to what they eat.
Labeled illicit massage businesses, they’ve recently garnered national attention because of a human trafficking investigation in Florida that led to solicitation charges against hundreds of spa patrons, including Robert Kraft, owner of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots.
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Human trafficking is happening in some of Horry County’s massage businesses, advocates who work with victims believe. They’re calling on local police to dig harder and partner with federal agencies to uncover the trafficking instead of making routine prostitution arrests that fail to aid victims or hold the real bad guys — the traffickers — accountable.
“The illicit massage business is no longer an unknown operation,” said Betty Houbion, a local advocate who has worked with state legislators to strengthen the state’s human trafficking laws. Houbion formed a citizens’ operation to investigate suspicious massage businesses a few years ago based on information she’d learned from Polaris, a leading worldwide anti-human trafficking organization, and reported several Myrtle Beach-area parlors to its human trafficking hotline.
Houbion’s suspicions are shared by others.
“In doing our research for Horry County, it appeared to us there were illicit massage businesses that should be looked into (for human trafficking),” said Sandy Sparks, executive director of ERASE Human Trafficking, who recently helped train local police on how to investigate businesses suspected of being human trafficking hubs. Members of the Tennessee-based nonprofit travel around the country training law enforcement agencies in how to proactively identity and investigate human trafficking.
While Horry County data has not been collected, illicit massage businesses are the top sex trafficking venue in South Carolina, according to the latest S.C. Attorney General’s report, with 19 instances reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, run by Polaris.
Yet, local law enforcement remains skeptical that it’s happening in their backyard.
“Just cause Polaris had (phone) calls (to its hotline), that’s not cases,” said Detective Pete Woods who leads human trafficking investigations for the Myrtle Beach Police Department.
“There’s no doubt that in the massage parlors, there is prostitution, there is no doubt. … (But) I don’t see where the basic elements of human trafficking … — force, fraud or coercion — (are) going on in the massage parlors in the city of Myrtle Beach. I don’t see that, and I’m not aware of it and we haven’t seen any reports of it or any cases of it.”
The difference between prostitution and trafficking comes down to choice. When a person uses force, fraud or coercion to get another to engage in prostitution, it is sex trafficking.
Each time he’s investigated massage businesses, Woods said he’s found women willingly offering commercial sex.
“We’ve spent hours surveilling places, looking, and finally going in, and it’s the one 50-year-old woman … and they come and go as they please,” he said. “We look and go. We just spent three hours on surveillance when we could’ve spent three hours surveillance (at) a robbery location, or three hours doing something else.”
The department is very understaffed, Woods said, so it’s inefficient to spend lots of time investigating routine prostitution cases.
But looks can be deceiving in these businesses, and traffickers count on law enforcement and the public to not dig deeper, advocates say.
Susan Liu, a counselor at Garden of Hope in Flushing, New York, has worked directly with hundreds of Chinese women trafficked through massage parlors in 23 states, including South Carolina.
Liu said the women, many who don’t speak English, never consider themselves trafficking victims — the entire concept is foreign to them — but when they start describing their histories and past violence, she starts to see how they’ve been controlled mentally.
“The door is open, but they’re still trapped,” she said, describing how the traffickers typically use a combination of social isolation and fear to brainwash a vulnerable population facing economic destitution.
Many describe traumatic interactions with law enforcement, Liu said, noting that they think they’re being robbed due to the loud noises and busted down doors often associated with sting operations.
“(The women) already carry a lot of shame, but it’s not something they talk about, so when police come, it’s very rough,” she said.
‘It’s not exactly a destination for women from rural China’
Red flags for human trafficking were present in recent prostitution arrests, say national advocates.
On Jan. 9, HCPD made its largest massage parlor bust, arresting seven women for prostitution at six local businesses, one each at China Doll Spa, Lily Spa, Great Massage, Beijing Massage and Sakura Spa and two at Oasis Spa. The police agency sent out a news release the next day, touting its commitment “to eliminating crime and reducing fear of crime in our community.”
It marked the second time prostitution arrests were made at China Doll Spa and Beijing Massage. Less than a month later, prostitution arrests were made again at Lily Spa and Oasis Spa.
None of the women arrested had licenses to work as massage therapists, according to records with the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
The women, all listed as Chinese, ranged from 43 to 61 years old, and most listed home addresses either in Flushing, New York, or at the business where they were arrested.
Those are tell tale signs of trafficking, advocates say. Women are often required to live at the businesses to be available to customers at all times, and Flushing has a large Asian immigrant population that serves as a primary recruitment hub for traffickers.
Meghan Carton, a founding board member at Collective Liberty, an anti-human trafficking nonprofit, said it’s reasonable to wonder how so many women from Flushing ended up in Myrtle Beach.
“It’s not exactly a destination for women from rural China to go to open a massage business. Did they just want to sell sex that badly?” she asked, rhetorically.
HCPD Deputy Chief Kenneth Davis, the department’s lead on human trafficking investigations, said they are trained to look for signs of human trafficking during any investigation, but declined to provide details about the recent arrests because it’s an open case.
Kathryn Moorehead, of the SC Attorney General’s Office and coordinator for the S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force, said the investigations into these businesses “depends on the lens law enforcement is looking through.”
“It’s all about whether they’re digging in to see if (the women) are being forced to do it,” she said, noting that trafficking investigations may require more time and resources, including interpreters who speak the language and understand cultural norms.
HCPD Capt. John Harrelson said police did not have a translator present during the raid, but translator services are available during the booking process.
The Sun News witnessed the bond hearing for one of the women arrested during the February sting, and the 60-year-old was visibly confused during her exchange with the magistrate judge.
After determining the defendant didn’t speak English, the judge called a translator hotline and asked for a Mandarin translator, but he had to hang up and redial when the woman said she spoke Korean. A Korean translator was able to eventually explain her charges to her over the phone.
Carton said she hopes there is a larger investigation in Horry County, but the damage to the women arrested is already done.
“They basically released pictures of rape victims without their consent,” Carton said, referring to the women’s mugshots. “We live in a digital age. What happens when they get out (from being trafficked) and look for another job?”
Arresting trafficking victims feeds into traffickers’ plans, Liu said, because they tell the women law enforcement only wants to arrest them.
“Arresting them really makes the traffickers’ threats true, and then the trafficker is there to help,” she said. “There’s an agenda, but (the women will) grab on to anything you can get. (The traffickers) offer them money, a place to stay, an attorney, like they really want to be your friend.”
Detective Joseph Scaramucci, a human trafficking investigator with the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office in Waco, Texas, said arrests also hurt attempts to investigate businesses as human trafficking fronts.
Scaramucci, a favorite of advocates like Carton, has conducted numerous investigations into massage businesses and has never arrested women for prostitution. He’s found that the managers of these businesses show the women instances of police arresting them, and it reinforces their distrust of law enforcement.
“The frustration behind it, and that’s law enforcement as a whole, it’s all of us, the frustration is that we’re likely arresting victims of a crime,” he said.
The arrests also do nothing to make the community safer, Scaramucci said.
“Myrtle Beach is playing whack-a-mole,” he said, referring to the recent arrests. “The woman just gets out of jail and goes back to work because nothing’s happened to the hierarchy of the network.”
All of the massage businesses busted recently by HCPD remain open. The only recent sting to result in closures happened in 2017, when prostitution arrests led to three massage parlors in Surfside Beach closing.
Law enforcement could attempt to close the businesses by declaring them a nuisance, but 15th District Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said he hasn’t received any requests from police. HCPD wouldn’t say whether they planned to do so, citing the active investigation.
Polaris notes in its report that even if law enforcement is able to shut these businesses down through prostitution arrests, they’ll just reopen in different locations under new name.
Business records show that Qian Hong Che, the former owner of Jun’s Therapeutic Massage, one of the businesses that closed after prostitution arrests in Surfside, is now the owner of Hong Massage in Myrtle Beach.
And commercial sex buyers always know where to go thanks to websites such as RubMaps.
RubMaps, with a slogan of “Where fantasy meets reality,” allows users to search for nearby massage parlors that customers have reviewed as offering sexual services.
A Sun News review found customers on RubMaps identified 17 massage businesses operating in Horry County that offer sexual services, including seven where prostitution arrests have been made.
A similar search in Waco, Texas, shows 10 businesses, all closed.
Targeting massage parlor operators
Scaramucci said the key is investigating and filing charges against the operators of these businesses.
Advocates often suggest law enforcement investigate the owners and landlords of suspicious businesses as well as those who bail out the women after they’re arrested.
The Sun News contacted or attempted to contact people associated with the seven massage operations where prostitution busts have been made in recent years.
Contact information could not be found for the listed owners of K-Spa (Jeoung Shin), Beijing Massage (Lihua Jiang), Lily Spa (Ok Hwa Lee) or Great Massage (Bin Yi). It could also not be found for Huazi Dong, who is listed as the registered agent for Lily Spa LLC with the S.C. Secretary of State’s Office and who bailed out the woman arrested in February for prostitution at the business, according to court records.
Unreturned voicemail messages were left for numbers listed to the owner of Oasis Spa (Samuel Owenby of North Myrtle Beach) and the property owners of K-Spa (Isaac Shamah of Myrtle Beach), Lily Spa (Patricia Sleem of Fayetteville, North Carolina) and Great Massage (Leon Butler of Conway).
None of the owners or landlords have been charged with any offense related to the businesses.
Christian Valiquette, when reached via phone by The Sun News, identified himself as the property owner for Beijing Massage through JC Power LLC, but hung up after a question about the prostitution arrests was asked. The parlor appears to be currently operating without a business license, according to county records.
Timothy Baker, the property owner of China Doll Spa via Jebs Development LLC and Sakura Spa via Henry Byrd LLC, said he found out about the recent arrests through news reports and immediately filed eviction notices because his leases specify no illegal activity may be conducted on the premises.
“I don’t condone it or put up with it,” he said.
Court records show he filed notices to vacate Jan. 14 through his LLCs against Bonroy LLC, the tenant of both properties.
Baker said police never contacted him, other tenants never complained and he hadn’t heard about the other prostitution arrest made at China Doll Spa in late November. He said he did have another instance many years ago when he had to evict a tenant operating a massage parlor for the same reason.
The rent agreement was made through a real estate agent, he said, adding that he’s met Maggie Yeung, listed as the registered agent for Bonroy LLC, and believes she is from California.
Baker provided The Sun News with a phone number for Yeung, but a voicemail message was not returned. Her defense attorney in the eviction case, Kevin Hughes, declined to comment.
A man named Robert Mills bailed out the women arrested during the January sting from China Doll Spa and Sakura Spa for a combined $400, but he told The Sun News his only association with the businesses is as a loyal customer.
A retiree from New Jersey, Mills said he’s been frequenting local massage businesses for about a year to aid his bad back, and he was sitting in the lobby at Sakura Spa during the raid.
Five or six officers in plain clothes burst in the entrance with guns drawn, Mills recalled.
“They looked like they were going to shoot somebody,” he said.
Mills said he bonded the women out as a favor, though the manager actually paid for it, and he doesn’t believe they did anything wrong. He’s never been “propositioned,” he added. Since the two arrests, Mills said the women have returned back to work at the businesses.
Court records show some of the other women arrested during the sting bonded themselves out, while Owenby, the owner of Oasis Spa, paid the bonds of both women arrested at his business.
When one of those women was arrested on prostitution charges again weeks later, Owenby bailed her out again, records show.
George Moses, property owner of Oasis Spa via Hartland Properties LLC, said his property manager handles renting the space out, and he’s never met Owenby, but he’s now working to evict his business. He hasn’t yet filed documents in court.
“I’m not affiliated with them whatsoever,” Moses said, noting that he never had any indication the business was operating as anything other than a massage business.
He also was never contacted by police, he said.
Follow the money
Connections to these Horry County businesses could extend past county borders, advocates say, and collaboration is key to law enforcement hoping to make cases.
Florida state police, acting in coordination with local, county and federal agencies, were able to bring charges in 2017 against 16 people in relation to operating a prostitution ring out of 13 Asian massage parlors in five cities across the state, according to an article in the Bradenton Herald.
Those charged included owners, managers, registered agents, associates and relatives for crimes including money laundering and conspiracy to commit racketeering.
Polaris CEO Brad Myles said he encourages law enforcement to follow the money, and Scaramucci said even when he’s not able to charge the owners with human trafficking, he’s been able to get them on other crimes, including money laundering and tax evasion.
As long as the leaders are arrested, the business is successfully disrupted and victims are freed, he said.
Woods, the detective with the Myrtle Beach police, said he understands owners and landlords are profiting off prostitution within some massage businesses, and he agrees they can likely be charged with white collar crimes such as money laundering, but that doesn’t make it human trafficking.
He’s been told multiple times by local advocates that some massage businesses are human trafficking hubs — he knows they’re going to be mad about his comments for this story — and he’d be happy to make a case, but he doesn’t think he could get a conviction.
“Get a policeman up there and tell me, or get a prosecutor up there and tell me that’s human trafficking (because) that’s not,” Woods said.
Training paying off
ERASE Child Trafficking was recently brought to Horry County to conduct an intensive three-day human trafficking training seminar at J. Reuben Long Detention Center, and one of the listed topics was illicit massage businesses.
The training, attended by numerous local agencies including HCPD and MBPD, was led by Maj. Rick Hoffman, who is retired from the Raleigh Police Department.
Carton, whose organization holds similar training seminars, said it’s important to allow law enforcement to learn from other law enforcement who understand the issue.
“These are people who have seen and heard the same things, so they can ask them questions differently (than they would an advocate),” she said.
But the training at J. Reuben on the massage businesses may not have been completely accepted by all the law enforcement in attendance.
Woods didn’t attend, but he said he asked one of his detectives who did, and she told him the training did not specify massage parlors as potential spots for human trafficking.
Told about that conversation by The Sun News, Sandy Sparks, executive director of ERASE, confirmed that the organization does consider these operations as potential spots for both sex and labor trafficking.
“We wouldn’t have a 90-minute block devoted to illicit massage businesses during human trafficking training if we didn’t think it was human trafficking,” she said.
Sparks said they teach multiple ways to go after the businesses, and none involve arresting women for prostitution.
Training for illicit massage business cases also includes ways to successfully prosecute without victim cooperation, as advocates note this population is the least likely of trafficking victims to cooperate with law enforcement due mostly to cultural differences.
Rochelle Keyhan, CEO of Collective Liberty and a former prosecutor in Philadelphia, said there’s typically an abundance of circumstantial evidence including bank records and app-based communications that prove crimes were committed.
Organizations like ERASE, Polaris and Collective Liberty are slowly starting to convince law enforcement to make these cases.
News reports from across the country are announcing arrests of the people behind the illicit massage business: five in Las Vegas on charges including racketeering and money laundering; three in Tacoma, Washington, that also are tied to massage businesses in California and Texas; two in Missouri that included coordination with police in Louisiana and most recently five women and one man were arrested in Florida as part of an investigation into an international human trafficking ring run out of local spas that also led to hundreds of solicitation arrests, including Kraft.
Sparks said she’s never met anyone in law enforcement who hasn’t gone on to make a positive difference once they’re taught how to make these cases.
“How can they make a change without education?” she asked, noting she was very encouraged by the response to the training at J. Reuben.
Lt. Sherri Smith, of the Horry County Sheriff’s Office, helped bring the training to the county.
Smith, who also serves as co-chair for the Coastal Region Human Trafficking Task Force, said it’s about adding more investigative tools. Police across the county are starting to take different approaches to human trafficking investigations.
“We’re looking to become more victim-based,” Smith said.
Davis and Harrelson echoed that sentiment.
“Yes, we’re absolutely investigating (every) case and trying to get to the truth of the matter and get a successful criminal prosecution if that is what is necessary,” Harrelson said. “But we also want to make sure (victims) are taken care of, and their human needs are met.”
Signs of human trafficking
Possible red flags that someone may be a victim of human trafficking include:
Poor living and working conditions: unable to come and go as they wish; unpaid or paid very little; owes a large debt they’re unable to pay off
Poor mental health: fearful, anxious, depressed; avoids eye contact; anxious around law enforcement
Poor physical health: appears malnourished; signs of physical or sexual abuse
Lack of control: few personal possessions; no bank account; unable to speak for themselves.
If you see any of these red flags, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.