Nassau County Crackdown on Chinese Massage Parlors

The site of what was formerly "Lucy's Spa" massage parlor in Hempstead. (Photo via World Journal)

The site of what was formerly “Lucy’s Spa” massage parlor in Hempstead. (Photo via World Journal)

[Editor’s Note: The World Journal recently ran two stories written by Peter Chu about massage parlors allegedly involved in sex trafficking. The first detailed the charges against three Flushing residents in a particular case, while the second described the problem of massage parlors and prostitution on Long Island.]

Three Chinese who allegedly coerced and instigated others into prostitution were arrested last month on Long Island. Each of them faces 12 charges, and, if convicted, up to 25 years in prison. On October 22, the attorney for one of them debated the prosecutors in court and claimed his client was not guilty and that she had never been involved in the alleged sex trafficking. But prosecutors presented evidence using 1TB of hard disc space to prove their points. The judge postponed the trial to November 12, and the attorney said the case won’t be finished until at least next year.

The three who were charged include a Flushing couple, 49-year-old Zhaowei Yin and 46-year-old Shuwen Ai, as well as 32-year-old Li Fei Leng, who also lived in Flushing. The three were slated to appear in the Nassau County court on Oct. 22. But the County’s Assistant District Attorney Christine Guida requested more time to go through the evidence because she had just come back from a honeymoon. Her motion to postpone the trial was approved.

Mingli Chen, the attorney who represents Leng, said on Oct. 22 that he had a debate with Guida in the office of the judge’s assistant, and the prosecutors have “evidence as big as 1TB” including surveillance video, evidence collected by undercover police officers and the testimony of the suspect. But he said he has spoken with Leng many times and believed she was innocent. At the arraignment on October 7, he managed to lower Leng’s bail from $250,000 to $125,000. When asked whether he’ll base the defense on the defendant’s identity as an employee of the questionable massage parlor rather than a manager, Chen declined to talk about that. But he emphasized that he’ll help the client to get justice. Chen said the three defendants were all detained in jail in Nassau County and hadn’t paid their bails. And the couple may hire other attorneys to represent them.

Chen said that Nassau County, since 2006, had adopted zero tolerance of massage parlors that offer sex services. “Once exposed, the owner and the employees would all be charged and it was very hard to dismiss such cases,” said Chen. But since three years ago, law enforcement started an education-based approach in which employees are let go and only the owner is severely punished.

The three defendants were all alleged to be involved in human trafficking and charged with felonies. They face several years of prison time if they are found guilty of even a few of the charges. Chen said his goal is to persuade the judge to dismiss the case against Leng. If that fails, he’ll then pursue misconduct or misdemeanor convictions. The earliest possible time to get the final results is next year.

Prosecutors of the District Attorney’s Office of Nassau County said the three defendants placed ads in Chinese language newspapers to recruit masseuses. They took two 18-year-old women who answered the ads to a grocery in Flushing, and then, to Lucy’s Spa and Panda Foot Spa in Nassau. They forced the two women to provide sex services to clients. The prosecutors said the two victims were forced to live in the spas. One of them was not paid. The other’s wages were reduced by the cost of transportation that the spas provided to her. The defendants also threatened to post naked pictures of the two on the Internet and newspapers, and to report them to immigration police for deportation if they dared to defy them.

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[The recent case is but one example of a business that has grown rampant in Queens and spread to Long Island. The following story describes the intractability the problem.]

This year, the 104th police precinct in Northwest Queens, which has a large Asian population, has shut down seven massage parlors in its territory. But the owners started new shops with different names soon after, leaving the police frustrated. Residents living in West Hempstead in Nassau County on Long Island said the police’s close attention as well as business saturation in Queens have pushed the sex business to Long Island.

Mark Wachter, Captain of the 104th precinct, said at a town hall meeting on October 20 that his precinct has shut down seven massage parlors that either had no permits or provided sex services. Most of these shops were in Maspeth. All together 31 business owners and employees were arrested. But he said: “Sometimes these (massage parlors involved in prostitution) sprouted out again. Especially along Grand Avenue, when one such shop is shut down, it can come back three weeks later at a location four shops down the road.”

The police have tightened their enforcement this year on Long Island. Prosecutors of Nassau County said Yin and Ai, the couple who were arrested this time, live in Queens. But they had several massage parlors in Nassau and Suffolk counties that may be involved in human trafficking.

Lucy’s Spa at 300 Hempstead Avenue and Panda Foot Spa at 400 Franklyn Avenue, both owned by the couple, were both shut down by law enforcement. The shopping mall where Lucy’s Spa was located was also raided by law enforcement in 2013 and some Chinese masseuses were arrested.

Legitimate businesses in this area worry that prostitution in massage parlors cannot be eradicated. “West Hempstead is a safe area where most residents are Jewish. If not for the increasing police actions in the past two years, most residents wouldn’t even notice the existence of these massage parlors,” said Mike Saadati, the owner of E Z Riders, a shop selling car stereos.

He said although there are many shops along Hempstead Avenue, the peak hours for the massage parlors are often after 6pm when other shops are closed or on weekends. So they rarely catch the attention of neighboring shops or residents.

Saadati said he thought there are at least three massage parlors close to 300 Hempstead Avenue that are involved in sex services. The business is oversaturated in Queens and West Hempstead is only a 30-minute drive from Queens. This plus the low rents and sufficient parking makes it a new favorite location for illicit massage parlor owners.

He said in 2013 a shop called Royal Day Spa was raided and four Chinese women were arrested for doing massages without a permit and providing sex services. Now, two years later, the story was repeated at the same location. “Prostitution is such a lucrative business. The police will never be able to eradicate it,” he said.

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