Raids at four area massage parlors in recent months resulted in the arrests of multiple women on prostitution and other charges.
But police fear that what’s happening is more complicated than women offering sex acts for money. They think the cases could involve sex trafficking — with immigrant women being forced into the commercial sex trade.
Authorities continue to investigate whether trafficking was involved in the local cases and no such charges have been filed. But they say the cases have the hallmarks of just that.
At least three of the cases have been turned over to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for further investigation. Local investigations also continue.
Sonia Ossorio, a steering committee member of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition, said the local cases seem to fit a classic trafficking profile.
“Throughout New York you will find massage parlors that are fronts for prostitution, where immigrant women speak very little English,” Ossorio said. “Women are found and very often these women are trafficked into prostitution.
“This is a classic scenario that plays out over and over in every corner of this state,” she added.
State police senior investigator Sam Mercado has worked on three cases, January raids at the Happy Angel Spa in Saratoga Springs and Golden Sunny Spa in Niskayuna, and a similar raid just over a year ago at a spa in Delmar.
Linking the cases or determining if a larger crime like trafficking is occurring is difficult to do, Mercado said.
In the Delmar raid, Mercado said officers conducted an undercover sting and made arrests after receiving complaints. As soon as they entered for the raid, the parlor’s phone started ringing. A woman from Queens, with an attorney in tow, also responded quickly.
Police soon concluded they were being watched, and that a surveillance camera system in the massage parlor was being monitored. In later raids of the Saratoga Springs and Niskayuna spas, Mercado said responding officers’ first priority was to unplug surveillance system.
In Delmar, Maercado said, “They saw us on camera. That’s how they track customers.”
When the attorney arrived, Mercado said questioning had to stop. Even before the attorney got there, investigators were limited by language barriers and difficulties finding a proper interpreter. The women spoke Chinese, a language with multiple distinct dialects.
Mercado works on the state police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team, which can provide assistance to local law enforcement for undercover work.
The Saratoga Springs and Niskayuna parlors were raided in January. On Jan. 31, police also raided the Mohawk Foot Spa in Scotia, arresting two women there.
Mercado said documents found in the Saratoga Springs raid connected that spa to the Li Health Spa in Halfmoon; an October raid at Li Health had resulted in one woman being arrested.
Mercado said investigators learned the women who were arrested generally lived where they worked and were rarely allowed to go outside. Investigators also believe the women are often rotated between locations in the area or elsewhere.
An employee at Dealz, a business next to the Niskayuna Golden Sunny Spa, said last week that the women working at the spa sometimes came over and asked for assistance with small problems, such as computer issues. He helped when he could. He also believed he saw the same women there for a longer period of time than the rotation schedule Mercado suggested.
The information from police is consistent with descriptions from various advocacy groups, and even the state as to what these parlors actually can be: a front for sex trafficking.
New York state has what the Department of Criminal Justice Services calls the most comprehensive law against human trafficking in the country. The law, passed in 2007, makes sex trafficking its own offense, punishable by up to 25 years in state prison.
The law was invoked just last week, with two Troy residents accused of trafficking a woman from Lewis County for prostitution at a Colonie motel.
Officials heard about that case through one of the woman’s friends. She was being advertised online, essentially as offering sex for hire. When investigators found her, she cooperated and directed sheriff’s officials to her alleged traffickers.
She was being held at the Super 8 Motel and sold for sex as her alleged traffickers fed her heroin addiction. Charged are a man and woman, Elijah B. Richardson, 19, and Jakia J. York, 19, both of Troy.
A state report released in 2008 cited 36 confirmed sex or labor trafficking victims in New York state in the first eight months of the law. Of those, 27 were female, 30 were foreign-born. Of the foreign born, 11 were from Asia, 19 from Latin America.
Sex trafficking was cited in 19 of the 36 cases. Victims of both sex and labor trafficking were found at restaurants, hotels, on a farm and at massage parlors, according to the report.
In the six years since then, 333 sex trafficking arrests have been reported statewide. All but 44 of those have been filed in New York City. In the Capital Region, only Albany County recorded any sex trafficking arrests — three in 2012. The recent Colonie case would are the fourth and fifth.
In that same time period, the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance counted 184 confirmed sex trafficking victims and 24 sex and labor trafficking victims statewide. Those deemed trafficking victims are eligible for social services.
The state defines sex trafficking as when someone uses force, threats or other means to get the victim into prostitution or hold them there. The trafficker profits from the prostitution.
The Department of Criminal Justice Services says such activity has been found at places marketed as massage parlors, health spas or acupressure centers.
Indications of trafficking, according to the department, are darkened or obscured windows that make it impossible to see in from the outside, locked doors and an all-male clientele.
In the local cases, police have investigated the woman who has frequently shown up from Queens after raids, Mercado said, but have found nothing upon which to base a charge.
Police believe she paid the rent at the Delmar and Niskayuna parlors, and paid for a sublet at the Saratoga Springs parlor. She also paid utilities and other bills.
The woman is a naturalized U.S. citizen with no previous arrests, Mercado said.
Mercado said that the masseuses arrested could be the clearest source of information on whether trafficking is going on and, if so, who is in charge.
But the language barriers and limited time before an attorney shows up cuts the time investigators have to interview them.
The women charged do appear to be returning to the region for their court dates. Checks with clerks offices show the women have appeared.
The Halfmoon case was resolved in December with an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal and a disorderly conduct plea. A contact number for the New York City-based attorney in that case could not be found.
A message left at the New York City number for an attorney listed for one of the Niskayuna women charged was not returned. A local public defender listed for the other woman charged in Niskayuna also could not be reached.
Fake massage parlors are advertised on online adult websites offering massages, suggesting that those frequenting them are not there looking for massages. Authorities say it’s not hard to figure out what they’re actually offering.
They also often target non-resident populations. Mercado said the Saratoga Springs parlor shut down in January was frequented by men who often drove rental cars.
In Scotia, village police received information about the parlor from area residents, who noticed something wasn’t right with the traffic, Scotia Police Chief Peter Frisoni said. Scotia police then called in the state police for assistance.
Frisoni, who became chief there in 2011 after achieving the rank of captain in the Schenectady Police Department, said such parlors are often part of a larger trafficking operation.
“You have two women who are up here from New York City, operating a salon, who have never been here before,” Frisoni said. “There’s probably a very good chance that they didn’t even know where Scotia was and they end up here.”
Frisoni also said police involved other agencies to help pin down why the women were in Scotia and if further charges could be filed against others.
But Frisoni also acknowledged the difficulty with such investigations.
“Often they’re not very cooperative or willing to provide information out of fear or they don’t want to disrupt what they’re doing,” Frisoni said. “It makes it difficult for law enforcement to track down the source or, for lack of a better phrase, the supplier, or who is starting these types of businesses.
Ossorio said it’s important for law enforcement to be ready to deal with trafficking victims. She said traffickers can threaten not only the victims but their families back home.
“These are women who are fearful to begin with,” Ossorio said.
She said law enforcement has made advances in awareness of the problem, but she said more must be done to intercept trafficking victims and get them help.
“As a culture, we have to ask ourselves, is the availability of women for sex on demand something that we should accept or see normalized?” Ossorio said. “Because this is what it leads to, women who are forced or tricked to come to this country and live a life of daily sexual abuse.”