The Atlanta shooting put a spotlight on the vulnerability of spa workers. Many are still routinely arrested across Georgia.
The board that oversees massage therapists in Georgia voted last month to educate its members about human trafficking, publicizing a national report that exposed links between corporate secrecy and sex spas.
“Historically, victims of massage parlor trafficking have been the main target of law enforcement activity, while the owners of the businesses – the traffickers – fly under the radar,” reads the 2018 report from Polaris, the nonprofit behind the National Trafficking Hotline.
“Raids focusing on employees are antithetical to efforts to shut down human trafficking.”
Yet in many cities and counties in Georgia, massage parlor employees are the ones targeted by law enforcement, based on a USA TODAY review of more than two dozen raids over the past 15 years. Collectively, those raids resulted in 35 charges of prostitution and masturbation for hire – a charged aimed specifically at massage therapists.
Experts say following an antiquated playbook does little to protect women often exploited by a billion-dollar industry propelled by a toxic mix of racism, misogyny and fetishization. Arresting low-level female workers, they say, further stigmatizes a population at risk of violence and trafficking.
Issues around the vulnerability of spa workers caught national attention earlier this month, when eight people were killed in three Georgia spas. Six of the victims were Asian women who worked at the spas. The suspect told law enforcement officials he had frequented two of the spas, describing them as temptations for his “sex addiction” that he needed to “eliminate.”
Police have given no indication if any of the victims were sex workers or faced force, fraud or coercion – the definition of trafficking in the U.S. Some of the women’s family members have strongly refuted such insinuations.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has said the two spas across the street from each other – Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa – were not on police's radar.
Still, the Atlanta Police Department conducted nine undercover operations at the two locations between 2011 and 2014. Those stings led to 12 arrests, nine of them for prostitution. USA TODAY found no record of police activity at the third shooting location, Young’s Asian Massage, about 30 miles north of Atlanta.
The raids at Gold and Aromatherapy spas followed a law enforcement technique common at spas around the state: An undercover officer pays a house fee to enter a room, where he strips down for a massage. A woman rubs his back or neck before agreeing to sex acts, a conversation often initiated by the officer. She reminds him that the money he paid is only for the room. They make a deal. Within minutes, other officers show up at the door and arrest the woman for prostitution.
Sometimes the undercover officers let the women touch their genitals before giving the call for backup – a practice criticized by both anti-trafficking advocates and supporters of sex worker rights.
“These places continue to operate with complete impunity and you’re arresting the victims,” said Vanessa Bouche, an associate professor at Texas Christian University and author of several reports on the illicit massage industry. “You’re arresting the people with no power whatsoever to change anything.”
USA TODAY found that approach utilized in Florida in 2019, the last time illicit spas made national headlines, when police said they caught New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft on camera paying for sex acts.
The charges against Kraft were dropped after an appeals court ruled the video inadmissible. The women he was accused of patronizing weren’t as lucky; most pleaded guilty to prostitution-related charges.
Although at the time police said the spas had all the trappings of human trafficking, no trafficking charges were brought against anyone.
In three other Florida raids reviewed by USA TODAY at the time, 54 of the 57 people arrested were women. Forty-two faced prostitution charges.
In an emailed statement to USA TODAY, the Atlanta Police Department said it no longer engages in these types of operations after changes were made to its vice unit in 2015.
“We share the concerns for anyone working in the sex industry and take any and all reports or accusations of such activity very seriously,” the statement said. “Were there evidence of that in these cases or evidence our victims were engaged in illegal activity, we would have acted appropriately.”
Amid such signs that the country’s views on trafficking and the illicit massage industry are evolving, advocates fear the recent shooting could lead law enforcement to fall back on old habits.
“What we don’t want to see coming out of the tragedy of Atlanta is more raids and sweeps that simply arrest Asian massage workers,” said Catherine Chen, chief executive officer of Polaris. “Vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation so often starts with economic need, and arresting individuals in the sex trade does not solve the underlying problem of poverty.”
Georgia is a hub for commercial sex; tools to address it are limited
Georgia is a known hub for commercial sex and sex trafficking. The National Trafficking Hotline ranked Georgia sixth in the country for trafficking reports in 2019. A report co-authored by Bouche and Street Grace, a faith-based organization combatting trafficking, estimated that more than 1,000 people visited illicit massage businesses daily in Georgia in 2019, making it a $40 million industry.
Loopholes in regulations, however, have left Georgia’s law enforcement and regulators with fewer tools than their neighbors to tackle the problem.
The state requires licenses only for massage therapists, not massage businesses. Local governments are permitted to pass their own regulations on massage businesses but not all do so.
Atlanta requires operators of massage businesses to be licensed through the city, unless they are a sole proprietor with a state massage license. But 30 miles away in Peachtree City – the site of a series of recent law enforcement stings – no local laws regulate massage parlors. Officials there said that’s why, when they do receive complaints from the community about spas, they turn to sting operations.
The investigative ability of the state Massage License Board and other governmental agencies also is limited. The licensing board may inspect massage businesses only if they give advance notice. According to the executive director of Street Grace, Camila Zolfaghari, the Georgia licensing board does not have a single full-time investigator. In comparison, Alabama’s Board of Massage Therapy has two full-time investigators, who visit businesses there twice a year.
The Georgia Department of Public Health does not inspect or regulate spas, either, a layer of additional oversight typical in some other states. One of the Florida Department of Health’s routine, unannounced inspections found signs that workers were living in a spa in Vero Beach – evidence of potential trafficking of female workers, which led to the case involving Kraft.
Shortly after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp took office in 2019, he and his wife launched Georgians for Refuge, Action, Compassion, and Education Commission (GRACE) to combat trafficking. They’ve partnered with public officials, law enforcement and organizations like Street Grace, as well as celebrities like Tyler Perry, who created a public service announcement for the commission last year.
Last year, GRACE debuted a trafficking hotline, an awareness course for state employees, and legislation that allows victims to seek restitution, change their names and dismiss convictions for crimes committed while being trafficked.
As part of the initiative, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation last July assigned four agents to a Human Exploitation and Trafficking unit, with a priority on investigating adult sex and labor trafficking.
“Four for the whole state is not a whole lot, but it’s better than one or two,” said Jeff Roesler, the special agent in charge of the new trafficking unit.
The unit has yet to tackle an illicit spa case, but Roesler said it is working to help everyone from law enforcement to Uber drivers spot human trafficking so they can report it to the state’s hotline. Signs include a lack of legal documentation, fear of law enforcement, working long hours, untreated health conditions and homelessness.
“It’s a difficult line to identify and then to work through not treating sex trafficking victims as suspects and arresting them,” Roesler said, “but truly identifying them and giving them the services that they need.”
Prostitution charges don’t reach core businesses or kingpins
The victim-centered approach described by Roesler has yet to reach all local agencies.
Police often fall back on enforcement of sex offenses that can seem arcane. The majority result in prostitution charges, an offense listed in the Georgia penal code alongside fornication, sodomy and adultery – all still misdemeanors in the state.
In USA TODAY’s review of raids on 25 spas in 11 Georgia counties, police response was consistent: An undercover officer recorded a female spa worker agreeing to sex acts and she was arrested.
Several years ago, this pattern played out at Gold and Aromatherapy spas. Police reports detail undercover sting operations at Gold Spa between 2011 and 2014 that resulted in 11 arrests for prostitution and masturbation for hire. Several of the women arrested at Gold Spa listed their home address as the address of the spa, which advocates warn can signal trafficking.
A report from 2011 details a similar sting at Aromatherapy Spa, with one prostitution arrest. St Jame Spa, located in Suite B at the same address as Aromatherapy, also was targeted, with two stings documented that resulted in two more prostitution charges.
Atlanta Police said when the department decided to move away from raids and stings in 2015, it decentralized its vice unit, putting officers closer to communities so they are more familiar with the neighborhoods they patrol.
“This also allowed the Department to provide a more victim centered approach, ensuring resources were available to anyone wishing to leave this type of industry,” Atlanta Police said in its statement to USA TODAY.
The department receives several hundred calls for service annually for solicitation and prostitution, which are listed under the same designation, according to records provided to USA TODAY. Most, spokesman Sgt. John Chafee said, relate to “street level activity.”
Asked how those calls are handled, and if they result in prostitution charges, Chafee said they were too numerous to review.
Between 2011 and 2019, Atlanta Police received 21 prostitution complaints citing the two Atlanta addresses where shootings occurred, three of them in 2018-19.
Gold and Aromatherapy spas also are listed on Rubmaps, an erotic review site where buyers who call themselves “hobbyists” or “mongers” looking for sex go to find and share information.
A review for Gold Spa on March 9 indicated that it was “full service,” meaning sexual intercourse, as did a similar review five days earlier. USA TODAY also found advertisements and reviews of sexual services for Gold Spa on a half-dozen other illicit sites.
“It’s very, very clear given all of this evidence that these places are in fact part of the broader illicit massage industry,” TCU's Bouche said.
Undercover operations continue around the state
In south metro Atlanta, Peachtree City police conducted a series of undercover stings last year. And in Gainesville, about an hour north of Atlanta, the Gainesville/Hall County Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad conducted undercover stings on two massage parlors in January, resulting in three arrests.
According to advocates and defense attorneys, targeting women working at the spas instead of going after the larger organized-crime network behind it does little to stymie the illicit activity.
“This piecemeal approach is not at all effective,” said Zolfaghari, the Street Grace executive director. “It only can temporarily eradicate a problem from a small local jurisdiction.”
USA TODAY confirmed that 15 of the massage parlors it examined closed after they were raided. Eight others, including Gold and Aromatherapy spas, stayed open.
Women arrested often move to different parlors. One of the shooting victims at Gold Spa, for instance, had previously been charged with prostitution at two spas in counties outside of Atlanta, according to records obtained by USA TODAY.
“It’s not ultimately effective in protecting women,” Zolfaghari said. “It only moves them.”
In almost all the Georgia prostitution charges USA TODAY examined, the accused women accepted plea agreements – 17 women in all. A rare exception happened in Forsythe County.
In May 2017, several women there were arrested in a series of stings. One of them opted to go to trial. The bulk of the allegations against her relied on poor quality audio the officer recorded at the scene. A jury found her not guilty.
One of the woman’s defense attorneys, Evan Watson, said that throughout the trial process, his client was “absolutely petrified.”
Law enforcement officials specifically target women like the one in Forsythe County hoping that, in exchange for plea deals, the women will provide insights into the larger organized crime network behind some spas.
At John Jay College of Criminal Justice, professor Meredith Dank said that play almost never works. The victims fear retribution from those higher up in the crime ring as well as the shame associated with the profession.
“Culturally, there's a lot of shame when it comes to being involved in these sorts of businesses,” said Dank, who researches sex and labor trafficking. “And so, admitting involvement is ... just incredibly complicated.”
Police engaging in sex acts to catch women draws criticism
Law enforcement’s engagement in sex acts to gain evidence has drawn recent attention in Congress. In March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Closing the Law Enforcement Consent Loophole, which makes it a criminal offense for federal law enforcement officers to engage in a sex act with anyone while exercising their authority as officers.
The bill, which goes next to the Senate, doesn’t cover local agencies.
In seven of the cases reviewed by USA TODAY, undercover officers let women touch their genitals before calling for backup or excusing themselves. Many other police reports did not clearly say whether the officers were touched during the sting.
The undercover officer in Peachtree City said in incident reports that a woman caressed his genitals before he arrested her on prostitution charges in 2020. An officer with the Gwinnett County Police Department let two women bare their breasts and massage his genitals before he gave the takedown signal for arrests in a 2008 raid.
An officer in Sandy Springs filed a lawsuit in 2010 saying he was unfairly reprimanded after reporting he had sexual intercourse with the suspect of a raid “as per the instructions of his supervisor and in accordance with the common practices perpetrated by his fellow officers,” among other claims. His lawsuit was dismissed.
At Doshi Spa in Roswell, a suburb of Atlanta, an undercover officer allowed a woman in 2013 to massage his genitals with her breasts as he tried to get her to incriminate herself on a hidden audio tape. The officer detailed the exchange in his report, which used the code name “SEAL-871151” to conceal the woman’s name.
“SEAL-871151 resumed masturbating me and she asked how much it was worth to me. I told SEAL-871151 to tell me how much it was worth to her. This dialogue continued back and forth several times before SEAL-871151 motioned for me to stop talking,” the report reads. “SEAL-871151 continued to masturbate me. (R)ealizing that she was not going to discuss the exact terms of the deal in an effort to protect herself from prosecution I gave the bust signal.”
Advocates say this breaks trust with female workers and can further traumatize trafficking victims.
“The idea that law enforcement is allowed to engage in sexual contact or is not penalized for having sexual contact with the people they are investigating, or that they arrest or that they are engaging in criminal proceedings with,” Chen said, “that is a major problem.”
Other approaches tend not to touch true spa business owners
Experts say the illicit massage industry is run by organized crime and functions in ways similar to the illegal drug trade. Spa workers are at the lowest level of the organization. Kingpins are rarely named in business documents; those listed typically are middle managers at best.
Police sometimes attempt to go after business owners under a charge called “keeping a place of prostitution.” USA TODAY found 10 women charged with this offense. A majority of those charges were dropped.
One woman at Gold Spa was charged twice. She took a plea deal for one of the charges; the other was dropped by prosecutors. Like most of those charged, that woman’s name never appears on records for the limited liability corporation behind Gold Spa.
Georgia code allows law enforcement to seize assets used to facilitate prostitution, or proceeds from it.
“It makes it more challenging for the illegitimate business to continue their illegal operations,” said Lt. Brad Williams of the Peachtree City Police Department.
But cases reviewed by USA TODAY show that police use the law to take assets of spa workers, not just owners, even when they find the person listed on business records.
In January, Hall County police arrested two women at two spas, Good Massage and Snow Massage. Both were charged with masturbation for hire and keeping a place of prostitution.
Police seized $1,400 in cash and a Honda CRV from the woman working at Snow Massage. Her name doesn’t appear on any LLC related to the spa uncovered by USA TODAY. Investigators later obtained a warrant and charged a third woman, who was listed as the organizer on an LLC behind Snow Spa, for keeping a place of prostitution. Yet, they proceeded with forfeiture of the worker’s car.
In court records, the worker has argued that the car was bought with money loaned by friends and family, not spa proceeds. The case is ongoing, and her attorney did not return calls for comment.
Presented with facts from the case, Bouche said she strongly suspects that the woman whose car was seized is not the true beneficiary of the business.
“She most likely is a woman who has worked her way up the ranks to become a madame,” she said. “It’s similar to a run-of-the-mill pimp operation. ... She started off as a victim and earned his trust over time then basically becomes the manager of his operations.”
One major hurdle to cracking down on the illicit massage business, Bouche said, is the actual owners may not be in the U.S. and their identities are obfuscated by shell companies.
Congress took on this issue earlier this year, too, passing the Corporate Transparency Act. It requires the name of beneficial owners, those with substantial control over a company, to be reported to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network whenever a company is formed or ownership changes.
Partnership was the secret to success in Texas sex trafficking case
Local jurisdictions in Texas have seen significant success in partnering with federal agencies. Last summer, the Department of Justice announced the takedown of CityXGuide.com. The classified ad site was a leading online advertiser for prostitution and sex trafficking that popped up after Backpage, another site, was taken down by the DOJ in 2018.
The owner was charged in a 28-count indictment for promotion of prostitution and reckless disregard for sex trafficking, among other crimes. According to the indictment, he netted more than $21 million through a suite of illicit websites promoting prostitution and sex trafficking.
The DOJ’s news release mentioned a police department from a town of just 26,000 residents. The Colleyville Police Department had been involved from the beginning of the investigation, said its chief, Michael Miller.
“We wanted to take an enterprise approach to this and look at it as an organized-crime investigation,” Miller said. “We try to disrupt the entire organization and not just go after one particular criminal or on low level crimes.”
Miller said the key was partnership. Two of his detectives worked with the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service on complex issues at the heart of the case, including money laundering and internet crime. Those detectives gained valuable training in high-level investigations, and the federal agencies gained local knowledge and manpower. Miller called it a win-win.
“Things may lead outside of your jurisdiction,” he said. “And if I don’t have partners, and I don’t have tools or expertise as we’re following these leads, it’ll end right there.”
Contributing: Dinah Voyles Pulver and Eve Chen
Cara Kelly is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team, focusing primarily on pop culture, consumer news and sexual violence. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, @carareports or CaraKelly on WhatsApp.