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Tampa targets massage parlors that front for prostitution

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 05:09 PM
TAMPA -

The city is targeting massage parlors that serve as fronts for prostitution, hoping to dent business by limiting their hours and banning people from living on site.

The measures are the city's first attempt to control the massage businesses that frequently operate 24 hours a day and that some civil rights groups say keep their all-female staff members in a state of indentured servitude.

"In many cases, the mortgage to their parents' house is the collateral for their debt" to what often are Asian traffickers, said Terry Coonan, director of Florida State University's Center for Advancement of Human Rights. "So their debt becomes their family's debt."

The Tampa area is a hotspot for such trafficking in Florida, Coonan said, thanks in part to its immigrant communities. Miami and Jacksonville are also problem areas.

For years, governments have tried to shut down massage parlors by arresting the women working there — with little effect.

"I've been working these places forever," said Michael Victor, a Tampa Police Department detective whose beat specializes in making sure adult entertainment businesses aren't breaking the law. "We're not getting anywhere."

State and local governments are now taking their fight to the business owners and landlords who benefit from the activity.

Last month, Gov. Rick Scott announced the suspension of 81 massage licenses he said had been illegally obtained for $10,000 or more each through an unnamed state massage school.

Tampa city attorneys are drafting an ordinance they hope will chip away at the ability of lawbreaking massage parlors to do business. City officials will use a variety of tools to go after the business owners and their landlords, Assistant City Attorney Rebecca Kirk told the city council this month.

That means going beyond the most direct approach: arresting women and charging them with prostitution, Kirk said.

"That's the least effective approach," Coonan said. "You don't get at the people making thousands of dollars a week from these women."

In many cases, however, the women refuse to cooperate with police, making it hard to break up the trafficking rings that exploit them, said Tampa attorney Katherine O'Donnelly.

O'Donnelly approached Councilman Mike Suarez about taking action against massage parlors. She has been interested in fighting human trafficking since her student days at Florida State University.

Suarez said last week it's not clear how many Tampa businesses are involved in the kind of behavior the city is targeting.

"The pervasiveness of it isn't really the key here," he said. "It's about letting them get a toehold in the city."

Kirk will return to the city council on Nov. 1 with a proposal to limit the hours massage businesses can operate — an effort to knock out the late-night business that may involve prostitution.

The ordinance also will ban people from living at the businesses. Critics of human trafficking say victims are often forced to live at the businesses, sometimes all in one room, in effect turning them into bordellos.

The city's plans should have an effect, Coonan said. He suggested city officials look into banning massage parlors within a certain distance of schools and churches.

Suarez said the city plans to approach the problem a piece at a time, countering suspected business owners as they change tactics. That will work better, he said, than laying down a single, overarching set of rules.

"The more restrictive you make it, the easier it is to wiggle out of the restrictions," Suarez said. "They'll act like a river and meander."


kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7871 Twitter: kevinw_trib

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