From the outside, the commercial space below a three-story apartment building on Beacon Hill doesn’t look like much: Beige paint. A small neon sign. Grimy windows blacked out with heavy fabric.

In January 2015, a woman whose daughter lived in the apartment building noticed a male-only clientele visiting the storefront, mostly at night. After some online research, she found the name of the business — “Magic Touch” — on Rubmaps.com, a site listing illicit massage parlors where men write reviews and rate the women they pay for sexual services.

The complaint she sent to police set in motion a vast prostitution and money-laundering investigation, tying massage parlors and spas in Seattle to a sophisticated criminal network that brings Chinese women into the U.S. through hubs in California and New York and funnels millions of dollars back to China, said Sgt. Tom Umporowicz of the Seattle Police Department’s Vice & High Risk Victims Section.

“There’s just so much money involved. It’s a crazy amount of money,” Umporowicz said. “This is Chinese organized crime, plain and simple.”

Five spa owners or operators were arrested in synchronized, early-morning raids late last week and a few hours later, teams of police officers forced entry into 11 massage parlors, most of them clustered around South Jackson Street in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.

Twenty-six Chinese women, many of them new arrivals who spoke little or no English, were removed from the parlors, where they lived and worked in squalid, dingy conditions.

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“The Seattle vice unit has never ever done this many massage parlor takedowns at one time. It was a first,” Umporowicz said of the operation on Feb. 28.

King County prosecutors have since charged two men and three women with money laundering and three to six counts each of second-degree promoting prostitution. A fourth woman, believed to have returned to China in 2017, was also charged but remains at large. Two of the suspects posted bail and were required to turn over their passports, according to prosecutors.

Like the women recovered from the parlors, all of the suspects are Chinese or Chinese-American, Umporowicz said.

Police seized more than $120,000 in cash during the one-day operation, including $17,000 hidden in one suspect’s nightstand, charging papers say.

In interviews with detectives, some of the women removed from the massage parlors said they were each charged $360 to $600 a month in rent. The women, in their late 20s to early 60s, worked six or seven days a week, often for 14 or more hours a day, according to police and charging papers.

At least one woman disclosed being sexually assaulted by customers and another said she had been robbed; others reported being slapped and verbally abused, the charges say.

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“These women were lured to this country with the promise of employment, but it was not until they were actually brought here that the nature of the business was divulged,” said Seattle Assistant Police Chief Deanna Nollette, who heads the Criminal Investigations Bureau.

From the beginning, the focus of the investigation was on targeting the people responsible for exploiting and profiting from the Chinese women being brought into the country to staff the parlors, and not on the men who patronize them, Nollette and Umporowicz said.

“When you’re undocumented and you’re vulnerable and you don’t know the culture, you’re easier to exploit. This is not news,” Umporowicz said.

During last week’s raid, none of the women or their customers were arrested.

“We dismantled a criminal enterprise. The fact six suspects were actually charged is a victory. We put property owners on notice (that criminal activity was happening in their rental buildings) and we rescued 26 women. I think by any measure that’s a successful law-enforcement operation,” said Nollette.

Years of complaints from three neighborhoods

For more than four years, police received a steady stream of complaints about massage parlors offering more than body rubs — with most of the complaints coming from business owners and residents in the Chinatown-International District, Beacon Hill and Sodo — according to Umporowicz.

While there are now an estimated 75 illicit massage parlors citywide, those three neighborhoods formed the epicenter of what became known as “Operation Emerald Triangle.” As part of the larger investigation, Umporowicz and his squad have established probable cause to bust 18 other massage parlors and are planning more arrests in coming weeks.

“It’s Whac-A-Mole,” Umporowicz said of the illicit parlors that regularly pop up and change locations. “I also have to answer to the community. I have people just incensed in the International District and the Chinese community that don’t want these (businesses) operating.”

As a sergeant in the Vice & High Risk Victims Section, Umporowicz has helped lead numerous operations aimed at disrupting the city’s commercial sex trade.

But investigating the owners and operators of the Chinese-run massage parlors required different tactics, due to language and cultural barriers. Umporowicz couldn’t, for example, send undercover detectives to infiltrate the businesses as he’s done in other operations.

He did, however, send in detectives to pose as customers — and women agreed to perform sex acts at all the targeted spas and parlors. In each instance, the charges say, the detective used a ruse and walked out before any sex acts were performed.

Umporowicz said the tight-knit network of operators and “complicit businesses” includes travel agents, immigration attorneys, brokers and couriers who arrange flights and visas to bring women into the U.S. and use underground channels to move money to China.

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The Beacon Hill storefront at 2523 15th Ave. S. that launched the police investigation in 2015 has since been renamed Tulip Spa. When detectives started watching the business, they spotted an Asian man driving a van between it and a second massage parlor, the now-closed Touch of Class Spa, at 2227 Fourth Ave. S., say the charges.

Those two locations put Umporowicz’s squad on the trail of Xinzhong Wang and his partner, Liuzhen Mou, who is believed to have since returned to China, according to charging papers.

From there, detectives used electricity bills, credit-card and bank records, phone and property records and a variety of surveillance techniques to identify Xinzhong, uncover the other targets and build cases against them, the charges show.

During the investigation into Xinzhong, Umporowicz learned he had previously lived in Monterey Park, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles where more than 65 percent of the city’s 60,000 residents are Asian, primarily from China.

“All roads lead to Monterey Park,” said Umporowicz, noting other targets in Operation Emerald Triangle have ties to the city and the nearby communities of San Gabriel, Rosemead and El Monte, all within a 30-mile drive of Los Angeles International Airport. The four cities also have problems with illlicit massage parlors, he said.

He and his detectives also uncovered links to Flushing, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens that is also home to a large Chinese population.

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“They’re hubs,” and serve as distribution points for women rotated into cities like Seattle, Umporowicz said. “They come from China to Flushing, but everything is connected down to Southern California at some point.”

The New York Times recently wrote about Flushing’s bustling Chinatown and its role in supplying women — mostly Chinese but also Korean, Thai and Eastern European — to the 9,000 illicit massage parlors believed to be operating across the country. Many employ middle-aged women working to pay off debts incurred in their native countries, the newspaper reported.

Many of the women coming into the U.S. are recruited on WeChat, a popular Chinese social-media app that posts job listings. Employment agencies in the L.A. area will get a call from an operator in Seattle and provide information about women they plan to send north, Umporowicz said.

“They fly them out of LAX and put them right to work in the massage parlors,” he said.

During the investigation, detectives used GPS trackers, surveillance cameras and mobile surveillance teams that followed spa operators as they picked up and dropped off women at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and shuttled them between different massage parlors, the charges say.

Women working in the parlors can make $10,000 a month, but Umporowicz said owners — who have multiple women working in multiple locations with very little overhead — can make far more, taking 60 percent or more of the money the women earn. But in addition to rent, the women are required to repay the costs of bringing them to the U.S., including airfare, attorney’s fees, and the price of student, work or tourist visas, he said.

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According to charging papers, one woman said her boss gave her a new cellphone but then forced her to repay the $1,200 he paid for it.

The men seen frequenting the parlors while they were under surveillance came from all walks of life, including doctors, engineers and tech workers, Umporowicz said.

“There’s just a whole mix. There are a lot of people like me, people my age and my race. I’m kind of the template for sex buyers in this country so I kind of blend,” said Umporowicz, who is white and in his 50s. And, he said, it’s why he’s still able to work undercover. 

Umporowicz said there’s so much cash flowing into the massage parlors that a crew of robbers has hit multiple spas in recent months and is suspected of committing a robbery at one location right before it was busted by police last week.

Sex workers taken to safety, translators, help

As teams were fanning out to arrest the five suspects in Seattle, Lynnwood and Kent on Feb. 28, nearly 100 police officers, federal agents and interpreters were gathering for an operational briefing at the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct.

When the briefing was over, Lt. Jim Fitzgerald, the operation commander, headed to a church in West Seattle.

He’d heard there had been problems setting up an intake facility, where women removed from the massage parlors were to be brought for interviews with detectives, then offered services by three local agencies that work with women looking to escape prostitution. But it was up to the women to decide whether to accept help — for instance, finding a place to stay, getting a ride somewhere or engaging in more intensive case management — or simply to go on their way. 

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He arrived expecting chaos. Instead, he found Sgt. Lauren Truscott had things well in hand. She had set up interview rooms and organized the 10 female detectives — on loan from the homicide and sexual-assault units, force investigations, missing persons and the anti-crime team — who were to be paired with interpreters to conduct victim interviews.

It was hoped the women being brought in would feel more comfortable disclosing sexual or sensitive details of their experiences to other women, Truscott said. The FBI flew in nearly 30 female linguists from out of state to eliminate the possibility the women being interviewed would recognize or later bump into their interpreter.

Olivia Herring, a victims’ advocate embedded in the Vice & High Risk Victims Section, said it was her job to make sure the church felt like a safe space for the women being brought in. There were no police cars parked outside, and all police officers wore plain clothes instead of uniforms.

Before the operation, Herring consulted members of Seattle’s Chinese community. Based on their recommendations, she made sure the church was stocked with food the women would find familiar and set up a waiting-room TV to stream popular Chinese television shows.

The whole point was to “make them feel comfortable, make them feel safe, and really prioritize those needs,” Herring said. “We’re really trying our best to be as trauma-informed as possible.”

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Satisfied with the preparations at the church, Fitzgerald headed to the Chinatown-International District, where he stopped at a massage parlor at 12th Avenue South and South Main Street. Flanked by a deli and a pharmacy, the massage parlor’s windows were covered in red fabric below a faded awning that had once belonged to a jewelry store.

“It’s pretty nondescript,” Fitzgerald remarked. “They’re all pretty much like that.”

After a couple more stops, Fitzgerald headed south to Beacon Hill and parked down the street from the massage parlor on 15th Avenue South that started the whole investigation.

Fitzgerald chatted with a sergeant still on scene, who said only one woman had been inside with a customer when officers had walked in through the unlocked front door.

Inside, someone had created three makeshift massage rooms out of uneven drywall painted a dingy brown. In another room, there were a couple of ratty recliners in place of beds.

“The woman who was here was in her 40s or 50s and she didn’t speak any English,” the sergeant told Fitzgerald. “I didn’t get the sense she’d been here very long.”

Vicky Li, a community liaison between Seattle police and the Chinatown-International District, said some people are unhappy about how the concentration of illicit businesses has affected perceptions of the neighborhood. She’s even heard it referred to as “Massage Town.”

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“For some community members, so many illegal massage parlors in our community makes it look bad,” Li said. “I really hope the community can provide the language,  job and housing resources to the victimized women so they can start a new life.”