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Published: Thursday, 7/25/2002

Asian crime rings targeted in probe of massage parlors

BLADE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

Federal and state agencies have been conducting a three-year investigation in Toledo targeting Asian criminal enterprises centered around massage parlors and spas, an FBI special agent in Cleveland said yesterday.

The news came a day after federal agents raided 17 massage parlors in Michigan in what they said is a national crackdown on Asian crime rings involved in prostitution.

FBI Special Agent Robert Hawk said he couldn't comment about what authorities have been doing in Toledo because documents pertaining to their investigation will be sealed until they are filed in federal court.

However, he said the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, and Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation have been conducting an investigation into the Asian criminal enterprises.

Mr. Hawk could not say whether a search yesterday by federal and local authorities at a West Toledo house was connected to the local or national investigation.

The FBI and IRS received help from state and local police in Tuesday's raids, which occurred in the Flint, Saginaw, Bay City, and Midland areas in Michigan. Agents also raided the homes of four Korean spa owners.

Many women working at the spas were recruited in South Korea and brought to the United States under false pretenses, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Collins said.

The women were forced to work as prostitutes in the spas and often rotated to other locations across the country, authorities told The Flint Journal.

A federal grand jury will be asked to indict the owners and operators of the 17 Korean-run massage parlors, federal officials said.

In all, authorities served 87 warrants nationwide. Mr. Hawk said he is unaware of any arrests in Toledo. About $300,000 in cash and assets was seized and 15 bank accounts were frozen. Police also photographed and fingerprinted 37 Asian women, ranging in age from 18 to 62, allegedly working at the massage parlors.

Most of the women questioned were in the Flint area, where police detained 23 women, including some from Kentucky, Las Vegas and Virginia.

The women were released pending further investigation.

The massage parlors were not padlocked, but officials said it would be difficult for them to operate after their telephones and other business items were seized. “The plan was to put a dent in them financially,” FBI Special Agent Walter Reynolds told the Midland Daily News.

Two women who answered a back door at Rainbow Accupressure in Midland declined to give their names and said they did not know anything about the raids. “I can't say anything right now,” said a woman at Jade's Massage Therapy in Genesee County's Grand Blanc Township. “After we see the charges, I can.”

The Flint police vice squad began investigating suspected massage parlor prostitution about a year ago, Flint police Sgt. James McLellan said.

The case led police to spas in Bay, Genesee, Midland, and Saginaw counties.

Sergeant McLellan said women in the spas tried to entice undercover officers to have sex.

Some spa operators forced female immigrants from South Korea and other Asian nations to work as prostitutes in order to pay off debts, FBI Special Agent William Kowalski said.

Police said they found boxloads of condoms in the spas.

“There is no reason for a spa or a massage parlor to have grosses of condoms,” Mr. Kowalski said.

Federal, state, and local authorities made a number of searches and arrests Tuesday, including arrests in Knoxville, Tenn., San Francisco, Connecticut, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.



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