FBI, police raid two Bennington massage centers
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | May 08,2013
Patrick McArdle / Staff Photo
The Cozy Spa on North Street in Bennington is one of two local massage businesses under investigation by police and the FBI.
BENNINGTON — Local police, Vermont State Police and the FBI raided two massage parlors Tuesday in what they said was an investigation into possible human trafficking and prostitution that could have ties to a larger ring of similar crimes.
No arrests were made Tuesday. But Detective Sgt. David Rowland of the Bennington Police Department said two search warrants, served simultaneously at about 12:20 p.m., at the Green Spa on Main Street and at the Cozy Spa on North Street might lead to arrests in the future.
Rowland said the Green Spa might have ties to criminal activity in a larger city but the Cozy Spa probably did not. He said the two businesses only had “marginal” ties to each other.
While he said he couldn’t provide details, Rowland said some of the material seized Tuesday, which included a large, unspecified amount of cash, business records, computers and cellphones, was evidence of prostitution and trafficking. He said investigators need to go through the information to determine the direction of the investigation.
A woman at the Cozy Spa who declined to identify herself said she didn’t know why police had searched the business but said they “found nothing.” She said the only reason police would come there was because it was an “Asian massage parlor.”
Rowland said the raids were based on information police had gathered during an investigation conducted over almost two years.
After hearing “rumors and different things flying around,” he said, police began conducting surveillance, interviewing people and looking at the Internet.
One website with a page called “Massage Parlor Reports” featured anonymous reviews in which people claimed they had paid for sexual services at both spas.
The FBI was involved because of the possibility of human trafficking, Rowland said.
Before conducting the raid, Rowland said, he spent some time learning about human trafficking.
“It’s not typically what we would think of somebody chained in a corner,” he said. “It could be financial indebtedness and different things like that so to an onlooker it would look like somebody was free to walk out the door, yet they really aren’t.”
Rowland said he spoke with three women who were originally from China. He confirmed one was in the United States legally, he said, but the status of the other two was not as clear.
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said police had offered to help the women if they were victims of trafficking, but none of them came forward.
Rowland said as many as five to 10 people in the area worked at the spas. He said he didn’t think it was likely that police would pursue “customers,” many of whom he said came from a “great distance.”
“Are we really looking to go out and arrest people many months after the fact for that?” he said. “Probably not but we don’t know yet. It’s still pretty early.”
Both Rowland and Doucette said they had never seen this kind of alleged criminal activity in Bennington before. Rowland said it was hard to write an affidavit because people involved could be both criminals and victims.
Rowland said he saw no evidence of licenses that would allow the businesses to operate legally, but the Vermont secretary of state’s website lists the Cozy Spa as a corporation that has been active since 2011; the owner is listed as Young Shin. The Green Spa has been an active corporation since 2012; the owner is listed as Yu De Jiang.
The Green Spa’s owner used a zip code from Flushing, N.Y., while the Cozy Spa’s owner used Bennington’s zip code.
Rowland said he believed the businesses would not be able to “run very efficiently” after the raids, but the neon “OPEN” sign was on at the Cozy Spa on Tuesday afternoon and the door was open. The woman inside, who declined to give her name, asked people coming in if they were there for a massage.