The men who frequented the two Dubuque massage parlors told stories almost identical to those of other johns across the country. What happened inside the parlors is now commonplace across Iowa, according to multiple city and law enforcement officials. What happened to their owner, John R.
Hart, and his wife, Meirong Li, after they were arrested was not. Hart, 67, and Li, 55, face a trial May 7 in district court in what is believed to be the only felony human trafficking and pimping case prosecuted in Iowa related to the illicit massage industry.
Though cities across the state have taken steps to pass ordinances and legislators have moved to enhance penalties to curtail the spread of illicit massage, the businesses are flourishing, undeterred by law enforcement, a Watchdog investigation found. Low-level arrests thus far across the state typically have targeted the women forced or manipulated into the trade, most often Chinese foreign nationals with few, if any language skills, police reports show.
PART 2: Care about human trafficking?
This Urbandale man did something about it. Here's what happened. In Iowa, at least businesses were listed in mid-March on Rubmaps. That's far more than when Watchdog first examined the growing industry in November Federal investigators used the "where fantasy meets reality" website to help track and nab hundreds of men who paid for sex in the massive eight-month sting that ensnared New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft in Florida.
A spokesperson for Kraft has said he did not engage "in any illegal activity," but police have said there is video evidence. Trafficking experts say similar stings are beginning to happen more often across the country, including busts in the past two months related to trafficking and money laundering in Seattle and Dallas.
In Iowa, authorities have hit dead ends when the women involved in stings and routine checks don't cooperate. But the victims don't cooperate in the same way that other victims do.
Scraping data, they found eight suspected illicit massage parlors in Des Moines and 45 across Iowa at the time. Even after numerous businesses have been closed, 13 Asian massage or reflexology businesses remained open this month in Des Moines,13 in Cedar Rapids and 13 in Davenport. All told, Asian massage parlors have been listed on the site sincebut not all of them are still open.
But we need you, too. Iowa is supposed to have some of the best laws in the country to combat sex trafficking. Those convicted of buying or selling another person, including johns who patronize massage parlors for sex, are supposed to do mandatory jail time.
But no one has been prosecuted for human trafficking under Iowa's state statute, A. Hart and Li, who have pleaded not guilty, would be the first. Their attorneys did not return phone calls seeking comment. No federal prosecutors in the U. Attorneys' offices in the northern and southern districts of Iowa have convicted any traffickers in the illicit massage industry, spokespeople for both offices confirmed.
In a statement, Marc Krickbaum, U. Attorney for the southern district, said prosecuting sex trafficking is a high priority for his office. He pointed to 10 trafficking cases since But none of those cases were related to the illicit massage industry, the leading reason for sex trafficking in the state, according to the calls to Polaris' national trafficking hotline.
Massage-related calls from Iowa to the National Human Trafficking Hotline have outed those from other surrounding Midwestern states — except Illinois — in a two-year span from June to Juneaccording to Polaris. But when massage parlors are busted, the men who frequent them are less likely to be charged than the women working there, state data show.
And the of people arrested for purchasing sex in Iowa actually dropped by more than half fromthe year when Watchdog readers first raised concerns, to In34 people were arrested for purchasing sex. In86 arrests were made for prostitution. Inthere were just 24, state data show. Myles, of the Polaris Project, said his organization is very concerned that investigations continue to target women working in the massage businesses.
If someone's house is robbed, you don't handcuff the person who was robbed. Many of the trafficked women are lured to the U. Caught in the sex trade, they often overstay their visas and remain in the country illegally. Others are recruited online or through social networks from within the U. A report this month in the New York Times named Iowa as one of several destinations where women, "typically Chinese, but also Korean, Thai and East European," are sent after coming to the country and learning the trade.
From Cedar Rapids to Iowa City to Des Moines to Council Bluffs, parlors have opened in plain sight in historic buildings, strip malls, run-down commercial properties, and next to cafes and bars. Traditionally, they advertise Asian massage, but more recently names have advertised foot massage and reflexology. In some cases, local ordinances, passed largely in the past two and a half years, allow police to check for state massage s and screen out owners with questionable criminal histories.
Such ordinances have also given police more authority to check for illegal activity. In places like Urbandale and Johnston, vigilance by local police and city leaders has succeeded in putting parlors out of operation and preventing new ones from opening.
A subsequent probe revealed trafficked women who had been performing massages and sex acts were living in the basement. Mayor Paula Dierenfeld said local officials learned later they were further victimizing women who already were being treated inhumanely. The ordinance Johnston adopted requires massage businesses to apply for a businesswhich allows for a criminal background check. Those checks have prevented two new massage businesses from opening, Dierenfeld said.
No parlors advertising erotic Asian massage are currently operating in the city, according to Rubmaps. InGov. Terry Branstad ed into law a bill that gave cities more authority to require s for massage parlors.
Still, business remains brisk: The National Human Trafficking Hotline received calls in from Iowa, the last full calendar year reported. By far, illicit massage is a top industry for those trafficked in the state, a truism nationally, according to Polaris.
Duax, the assistant U. Polaris encourages law enforcement networks to work across jurisdictions. It also stresses providing sex trafficking victims access to legal and social services, and not punishing them with arrest. Myles said that the people driving the industry function like organized crime, usually with shared ownership across multiple locations, and that law enforcement in turn needs to treat the operations like organized crime. We're trying to get beyond the whack-a-mole approach and get to dismantling a network.
In Dubuque inpolice and members of a vice and narcotics squad spent months tracking the men who frequented the two parlors owned by Hart, a criminal complaint shows.
They conducted surveillance for three weeks, made arrests, initiated interviews with customers and obtained warrants to check Hart's phone records and bank s. They went through trash at the home he shared with Li and at the parlors, finding schedules, receipts and towels stained with semen.
Bank records of Hart and Li show payments to Rubmaps, Back and Craigslist, a criminal compliant says. Several thousand dollars in cash was found in Hart's home and both businesses.
Investigators also found itineraries and copies of airline tickets, some of which were billed to Hart, for travel involving individuals with Asian names. Just before officers executed a search warrant on May 2,two undercover officers were sent into both locations.
Both said they were solicited for sex near the end of their massages. After officers entered the TuiNa Studio, Hart spoke to them via a baby monitor he used as part of a surveillance system. Lee Rood's Reader's Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and ability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Contact her at lrood dmreg.
Facebook Twitter. Iowa is a hot spot for trafficking in the illicit massage industry, but prosecutions are rare Experts say stings are starting to happen at illicit massage parlors across the country, like the one that ensnared Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
But none have happened in Iowa, Reader's Watchdog found. Show Caption. Hide Caption.
Neighbor spends 18 months to close illicit massage parlor. Jim Townsend worked for 18 months to close down an illicit massage parlor that was operating next to his business in Urbandale. What's next for Robert Kraft?
SportsPulse: Will Robert Kraft face actual jail time? Will the video inside the spa ever be released? Perez breaks down what's next for the Patriots owner legally. Asian massage parlors booming in Iowa. Share your feedback to help improve our site!
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