More details have emerged from the police report on a Post Road massage parlor that halted operations after an undercover investigation revealed that unlicensed masseuses were exchanging sexual favors for money. These details show a possible connection to the sex trafficking industry, according to a Darien Times investigation.
The police probe into Sunrise Health Therapeutic Massage began after Officer Nick Aranzullo found an advertisement for a massage parlor off Exit 11 on I-95 while scouring Backpage.com, a classified website known for offering illicit services, for any Darien ties. The ads featured Asian women in “various stages of undress,” the arrest warrant stated, and had a Darien telephone number.
The ad text was also replete with a code phrase for sexual activity, “ST” and “soft touch,” police said. Officers began staking out the place at night, but noticed most activity happened during the day. A neon “open” sign stayed lit all night, police said, and officers saw at least four different women enter the massage parlor at different times.
An undercover informant posing as a customer entered the parlor on a Wednesday night after having been told at an earlier massage appointment that if he came back with more money, “he would enjoy himself.” Toward the end of this second massage, the masseuse, who identified herself as LuLu, performed a sexual act on the informant to completion.
LuLu is said to be Flushing resident Xiuguin Lu, according to police. The informant paid Lu $60 and gave the parlor owner, Fu Xu, $80.
Six days after the initial sexual massage, the informant returned to the parlor, and within five minutes of getting a massage, the masseuse again performed the same sexual act on the informant.
The informant told police that the act was repeated at the end of the massage, achieving “the same result.” He paid the woman $80 for the massage and gave her a $60 tip. A recording device on the informant had malfunctioned and did not record the activity, according to the warrant.
Police did not respond to questions seeking clarification on why the informant needed to undergo the sexual act three times on two occasions for the arrest to be made. Lu was the only woman arrested for prostitution, despite the arrest warrant stating that the informant had an appointment with a woman named Lucy, who was unavailable at the time, so Lu took her place.
Nobody was arrested for patronizing a prostitute, despite police gathering evidence indicating the parlor kept track of its clients using a calendar, a phone number list and numerous business cards “with the name and number of clients.” Police began regular surveillance of the parlor on Aug. 14 and sent their informant on Oct. 17, according to the warrant.
Lu was also charged for practicing massage without a license, as was Fenjiao Gao of Flushing. Gao is in the country illegally, although her immigration status would not be made public, said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who said the investigation was still ongoing. Darien Police told The Times, however, its investigation is closed.
The case doesn’t end there. An examination of details points to potential connections to the international sex trafficking trade, which involves the sexual exploitation of women or children by force, fraud or coercion for financial gain. Police have denied any relationship to this criminal network.
Megan Fowler, communication director for the Polaris Project, a nonprofit working to eliminate sex trafficking and other forms of human slavery, told The Darien Times that Asian sex trafficking networks “are heterogeneous.”
“Common indicators of human trafficking in fake massage establishments include victims living on-site, isolating victims from the outside world, high security around the building and victims owing large debts to their controller,” Fowler stated in an email. Victims “of human trafficking have been found in brothels disguised as Asian massage parlors across the country.”
The police said it appeared someone was living in one of the four rooms at the massage parlor, as it was strewn with food, clothes and personal items. When all vehicles associated with the parlor had left one night, an officer rang the outside buzzer and a woman’s voice answered, the warrant states.
The parlor was also secured more heavily than other shops, and could only be accessed by someone inside the parlor unlocking the door with an automatic buzzer after a visitor rang the doorbell. Fowler said that the “controller,” or the “papasan” as it’s known to illicit parlor patrons, train the women to fear police and to provide cops with canned stories.
“Control tactics present in Asian trafficking networks are often subtle, economic and psychological,” Fowler said. “Debt bondage is a common form of control for these networks. The potential victims might have put down an advanced payment or smuggling fee which is then owed with interest.” Controllers also threaten deportation if rules are not followed.
Xu, the alleged controller, is an American citizen of Chinese descent, according to police. Lu is a Chinese national in the country legally, although customs officials would not comment on whether she had a green card or work visa.
While police have indicated that Lu’s actions were voluntary, or that she wasn’t forced to provide the sex acts, it’s likely that if she were a sex trafficking victim, she would not reveal the true nature of her working relationship out of fear of retribution, according to Polaris.
“Some of these illicit businesses enforce house rules where the victims are forced to buy personal products, clothing and make up through their controllers at an elevated price,” Fowler said, adding that the types of control are difficult to identify and learn about, but are present in many cases.
Women at the massage parlor were also seen by police leaving the building with boxes that officers determined contained evidence of illegal activity. Police did at least two “garbage pulls” to examine trash from the parlor, and concluded that evidence was being removed.
The parlor had only been in business since September of 2011, and had even taken out a month’s worth of ads in The Darien Times, with the headline “Reflexology”, followed by a list of services, none of which appeared illegal. Xu was licensed as a masseuse, but his employees were not, according to the warrant.
David Knauf, the town’s health director, said he had inquired about inspecting the parlor as its license to operate was about to expire during the police investigation. There are currently 25 facilities permitted in Darien under Hairdressing, Barbering and Cosmetology regulations, Knauf said.
“We do not have a permit specific for ‘massage’ and are in the process of updating our regulations to include that type of service in a more comprehensive ‘Personal Services’ category,” Knauf stated in an email.
Flushing, which is in Queens, has been the home to several Chinese women who have been arrested in New England this year on prostitution charges. Yong Du, 43, was arrested in Massachusetts in early November, and Xueying Shou, 46, was arrested in Norwich two months ago.
There are approximately 4,000 brothels disguised as massage parlors in the United States alone, according to Polaris. In South Florida, the “body-rub” business is booming, according to a recent Sun Sentinel article, to the point where a human trafficking task force was established and the FBI have begun raiding parlors searching for evidence of organized networks.
Originally published in The Darien Times.