Sat, Jul 24, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Sex slavery uncovered in Vermont

SMUGGLED WOMEN Experts say the investigation of a suburban Asian brothel fits the pattern of a problem that is reaching into the smallest corners of the US

AP , ESSEX JUNCTION, VERMONT

The regulars at the Park Place Tavern weren't surprised when police raided what is being described as an Asian brothel in a small house across their shared driveway.

But they were surprised when news reports linked the now-closed Tokyo Spa and two other health clubs in the area to what police say is an international prostitution ring that smuggled Asian women into the US and made them sex slaves.

"We joked about it here all the time," said Sandy Maloney, who lives in an apartment complex out back.

Maloney said she watched as older men driving expensive out-of-state sport utility vehicles visited the Tokyo Spa at all hours.

Experts in sexual slavery say the Vermont case fits the pattern of a problem that is reaching into the smallest corners of the US.

"Modern-day slavery is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world," said Derek Ellerman, co-executive director of the Washington-based Polaris Project, a grass-roots anti-trafficking organization.

"They have done a very good job of spreading into suburban and even rural areas. It's a market-driven criminal industry. Wherever there is demand for commercial sex, the traffickers will spread to those areas," Ellerman said.

There's an eviction notice on the door of the light gray two-story clapboard house that operated as the Tokyo Spa for about a year. The city of Burlington is moving to evict the tenants from another of the spas. At the third, the building owner insists all the activity inside was legal.

Police, though, contend the clubs were offering sexual services along with massages. During the raids earlier this month, authorities arrested eight women -- three Korean and three Chinese -- on federal immigration charges. All except two have been released, said Essex police Lieutenant Gary Taylor. No state criminal charges have been filed.

In court documents, police say the women who worked at the spas never left. Even groceries were brought to the house.

One Korean woman told investigators she had been smuggled into the US and had only recently arrived at the Tokyo Spa.

Court documents filed by police to get search warrants for the three businesses outline what authorities say could be a link to international organized crime and sexual slavery. Similar operations, according to the papers, are being investigated by federal authorities in New York City, New Jersey and Maine.

"The way these massage parlors or spas or health clubs work, they are really fronts for prostitution," said Linda Hughes of the University of Rhode Island.

Hughes, who has studied international sex trafficking for 15 years, said many of the women have been smuggled into the US and are being held "by some sort of forced fraud or coercion."

Typically, sex rings offer to bring women into the US for a fee. Once in the US, the women are forced to repay the cost of their passage by working as prostitutes.

The women will give most of the money they make to the brothel owner. They are charged for rent and expenses. They can be fined for rule infractions, Hughes said.

"There are all sorts of things they do to prevent these women from getting out," Hughes said. "That may mean these women have been enslaved for 20 years."

Asian women aren't the only ones enslaved. The Vermont case appears to be a Korean network, Ellerman said. And traffickers bring women to the US from around the world.

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