FLUSHING, Queens -- When the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots was busted on charges of patronizing a sex spa in Jupiter, Florida — just weeks before his team won the Super Bowl — PIX11 started thinking about the local connections to Robert Kraft’s arrest.
Jupiter Police said a number of women working in the “Orchids of Asia” spa had addresses in Flushing, Queens.
“When they first move to America, they come to Flushing first,” Councilmember Peter Koo said of many trafficking victims, who unwittingly answer ads for waitressing and massage therapy jobs, only to end up doing sex work.
A Florida trafficking investigation was looking at whether the workers in Jupiter were part of a human pipeline that pumps female workers, many of them against their will, between Queens and multiple cities in the U.S.
“The ladies are being brainwashed; there’s a lot of fear,” said Susan Liu, a social worker with the Garden of Hope organization, which is based in Flushing.
“The police will arrest you, if you don’t do what the customers say,” Liu said, quoting the words of frightened women who got threatening messages from their bosses.
Detectives with the NYPD Human Trafficking Unit have quoted estimates that 9,000 illicit massage businesses, called IMBs, are operating in the United States.
There are scores of them in Flushing and other parts of Queens, as PIX11 found when we embarked on an undercover investigation.
PIX11 simply had to Google a phrase called “Girlfriend Experience Flushing” to find dozens of locations scattered around Queens, some of them including full addresses.
The spas operate in commercial buildings — sometimes with side entrances — or rear entrances.
They’re behind nail salons and part of the landscape in attached businesses that include podiatrists’ offices and surgical supply stores.
“We are proactively going after the demand side of the business to try to get people out of the business,” said NYPD Lt. Christopher Sharp, when we met him at a Human Trafficking seminar held at Flushing’s Main Street Library in March.
Flushing has been “ground zero” for sex trafficking and even voluntary sex work.
The police department recently shut down some spas on 40th Road that were alleged fronts for prostitution.
In recent years, 40th Road had become notorious as a “red light” district, with women aggressively soliciting customers on the streets, many of them arriving by Long Island Railroad.
The Main Street stop delivers commuters directly to 40th Road.
Michael Chu, a travel agent who works directly across the street from the LIRR stop, told PIX11 the women would solicit specific types of men.
“Mostly non-Asian men,” Chu said. “Spanish and other races.”
“Asian men don’t come here,” Chu observed. “For the same price, they can find a younger girl.”
Despite the recent operations by the NYPD and other agencies, PIX11 found some older women were still trying to solicit men on 40th Road with the phrase, “massage.”
“Most are in the 40s or 50s,” Chu told PIX11, “a few even over 60.”
Our PIX11 photographer met a number of older women, some wearing heavy makeup, trying to drum up business for their spa on 40th Road.
On one Friday afternoon, our cameraman saw a steady stream of men going in and out of one entrance, generally finished with their visit within 15 minutes.
Many spas offer services of 30 minutes or one hour.
Customers are usually expected to pay a “house fee” and then tip the woman (or women) who work with them.
“There are lot of legitimate massage parlors that don’t have this,” said Lt. Sharp. “But some of the warning signs: if you see the windows blacked out or windows with shades on them.”
Song Yang, 38, was one of the voluntary sex workers who rented two units on 40th Road from a business agent known as Peter D.
She was killed on Thanksgiving weekend 2017, when she fell from a third floor balcony, as police arrived to raid her place of business.
“My sister really, really could not have jumped,” said the woman’s brother, Song Hai, on the day before he prepared to return to China, “because my sister is not crazy. My sister is a happy girl and very smart.”
Song Hai said his sister turned to sex work to save money to open a restaurant.
But thousands of other women don’t choose this life, and they’re working in the shadows, sometimes even living 24/7 in the spa.
In part two of our special report on The Human Pipeline, PIX11 takes you inside a number of spas, where some women greeted our cameraman wearing negligees, while others presented an air of legitimacy while donning lab coats.