HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - A new civil enforcement provision to Alabama’s human trafficking law led to a crackdown on several massage businesses in Huntsville, Decatur and Madison.
Attorney General Steve Marshall said workers were forced to live in terrible conditions and they had to perform sex acts with customers.
The Madison County Circuit Court has granted a request by Marshall for a temporary restraining order against a chain of massage businesses that he said was actually operating a human-trafficking enterprise.
The complaint also alleges violations of Alabama’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
Two businesses in Huntsville, one in Madison and one in Decatur were raided on Thursday. The victims are of Chinese nationality.
Denise Sullivan owns Journey Therapeutic Massage in Madison and she applauds the state for stepping in and dismantling the operation.
“I’m very happy that law enforcement is taking this seriously. We would all love think that we would never support human trafficking in any way but that’s what people are doing when they patronize these businesses,” she said. “The reason those prices are so low is because these folks are trafficked. The owners of these businesses are paying them little to nothing for their services.”
TY Green’s Massage Therapy, Inc., its owner Yuping Tang, and manager Jiao Liu, who is her daughter, and their four businesses are restrained from conducting business in Alabama.
The businesses operate in Huntsville under the names Health Massage and Massage Foot Care, and in Madison and Decatur under the name Massage Foot Care.
All assets have been frozen, and a receiver was appointed by the court to take control of the businesses until a preliminary injunction hearing can be held.
“Alabama’s new law provides a valuable tool to more effectively fight human traffickers and restore dignity and freedom to their victims,” said Attorney General Marshall in a press release. “With this civil action, we were able to respond to the dire urgency of the situation, shut down the trafficking operation, rescue the victims, and preserve assets that can be used to help those who have been harmed.”
In his legal complaint, Attorney General Marshall told the Court that “evidence collected during this investigation has revealed that the defendants are running illicit massage businesses that serve as fronts for a human-trafficking operation."
In their organization, the ‘employees’ work incredibly long hours during which at least some of them are expected to engage in sex acts with the businesses’ customers, Marshall said.
When the victims are not ‘working,’ they have little freedom. They are transported in groups to and from the businesses and are kept in houses owned by the defendants where they are left to eat and sleep in terrible conditions, according to the AG's Office.
Marshall added: "The defendants, on the other hand, have reaped millions of dollars in revenue from their businesses, and the Attorney General now brings this action in order to put an end to their conduct and protect their victims from further harm.”
This immediate civil court action was vital to keep the owners from moving and hiding their victims as well as to stop disposal or transfer of assets, the Attorney General said.
In addition to financial accounts, the defendants’ business premises and residences have been seized.
Sullivan says when you walk into a legitimate massage establishment, you will be asked to fill out a medical intake form so that the staff can be aware of any medical conditions.
Every licensed massage therapist in Alabama has to take an exam that’s only given in English or Spanish.
“So if you’re pretty sure that no one there is speaking English or Spanish, that could mean that they’re not licensed,” Sullivan stated.
If you walk into a place and you see six massage therapist and there are only two licenses on the wall, that’s a red flag, she added. Everyone has to have a license posted.
“If you see a place that’s open long hours (10 am- 10pm) seven days a week and high tech security cameras at the entrance. If the windows seem to be blacked out, those are other things to look for,” Sullivan explained.
She encourages anyone who sees those things to contact law enforcement and the Alabama Board of Massage Therapy.
Unfortunately, the state’s raids were no surprised to Sullivan. She’s been working to expose the problem for years, because it shines a negative light on the industry.
“I’m just happy they were able to shut so many places down at the same time,” Sullivan said. “We have to think of the people working in these places as victims.”
She saw comments online asking why the busts were such a big deal if it was something going on between two consenting adults
“The buyer is consenting, but the service provider is not. They are there under duress,” she stated.
Pat McCay, chair of the North Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force and the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, says there’s an alarming number of illicit massage parlors in the U.S.
Polaris Project suggested that there might be up to 7,000 of them across the country.
“Even if there’s one, that’s too many. This is the beginning of getting these massage parlors and their networks,” McCay said. “I think the fact the Alabama Attorney General is going after this first case is phenomenal. It will set a precedent for future situations like this. Human trafficking is a terrible situation. Massage parlors, in particular, are a combination of both sex trafficking and labor trafficking.”
The Attorney General has asked the court to permanently shut down the defendants’ human-trafficking network and grant monetary damages as restitution for its victims.
No information was released about how many victims there are. For safety reasons, their whereabouts may not be disclosed. This matter is a civil proceeding.
Attorney General Marshall thanked the agencies involved in the investigation of this case, including the Alabama Board of Massage Therapy; the Alabama departments of Labor and Revenue; the Morgan and Madison county district attorneys’ offices; the Madison, Huntsville and Decatur police departments, the Madison City Attorney’s Office, the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, the National Children’s Advocacy Center and the Alabama Fusion Center.
He commended those handling the case in the Attorney General’s Office, noting in particular Assistant Attorneys General Audrey Jordan and Michael G. Dean, the Consumer Interest Division and Special Agents in the Investigations Division.
This is the first civil action taken under the new civil enforcement provision to Alabama’s human trafficking law.
“It’s great in that it’s going to help the victims. The victim of these crimes do not get all of the money that’s generated. And it’s so important that we get them some restitution,” McCay stated.
The addresses of the affected businesses are:
Massage and Foot Care Spa (or Massage Foot Care) 3022 South Memorial Parkway, Huntsville, Alabama
Health Massage 6290 University Drive Northwest, Huntsville, Alabama
Massage and Foot Care Spa (or Massage Foot Care) 7950 U.S. Highway 72 West, Madison, Alabama
Massage and Foot Care Spa (or Massage Foot Care) 2411 6th Avenue Southeast, Decatur, Alabama