Woman’s mission to shut down massage parlors involved in human trafficking

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DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — The Neon Moon massage parlor in Durham was shut down in April following a two-year human trafficking investigation. One Durham woman says there are still several other massage parlors selling sexual favors within the city. Thursday afternoon, that woman went before the city council with her plan to put an end to the sex trade.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in 2017, there were 221 reported cases of human trafficking in our state, putting North Carolina 8th out of all 50 states for human trafficking.

“My plea is to specifically create a victim centered systematic approach to once and for all shut down the illicit massage businesses in Durham that are a front for larger organized human trafficking rings,” Molly Stillman said in front of the Durham City Council Thursday. Stillman sits on the board of Shield North Carolina, an anti-human trafficking organization based out of Apex.

“I really believe that it’s time for us to stop talking about it and do something,” Stillman said.
Stillman says human trafficking is often happening right under our noses. In fact, a massage parlor busted for human trafficking in April was in the same shopping center as the Durham police department’s substation.

“The general public might not know that that place right next door to the restaurant that they love is a human trafficking ring,” said Stillman.

Deputies arrested the owner of Neon Moon as well as two other associates they believe were part of the human trafficking ring. Law enforcement databases describe one of the men, Quan Chun Li, as “A known Chinese mafia associate trafficking females in from New York.” None of the women who worked as masseuses at Neon Moon were arrested or charged. The sheriff’s office told us they are considered victims and they’d rather offer them assistance, which is exactly what Stillman is fighting for.

“For a lot of years there’s been this culture of it’s kind of like an elbow, a nudge where we say, ‘Oh you’re gonna go get a massage with a happy ending.’ Well, the reality is the women working in these massage parlors, they are trafficking victims and we need to see them as such,” Stillman said. “They are not prostitutes.”

The Neon Moon Spa in Durham is shut down, but Stillman says she is aware of five other massage parlors selling sex in Durham.

“Some red flags to look for would be hours of operation, are they operating 7 days a week, 12-14 hours a day? Does it appear that it’s a bit secretive? Do they lock the door behind customers that walk in?”

Stillman has organized a meeting next week with Durham police, the SBI, the district attorney and service providers to come up with a strategic plan to not only end human trafficking, but offer support for the victims.

“We could go into these places and we could shut them down and get the women out, but then what next for them? In a lot of cases this is their shelter, this is their food, this is their moderate source of income,” Stillman explained. “So, we need to provide an alternative for them so they don’t just end up right back where they started.”

Establishments that provide massage and bodywork therapy services to the public are required to hire only persons who are licensed in North Carolina as massage and bodywork therapists. LMBTs are licensed by the North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy but the establishments where massage and bodywork therapy services are provided are not currently licensed by the Board.

Charles Wilkins with the North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy says in 2017, the Legislature gave the North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy the authority to license establishments that provide massage and bodywork therapy services to the public. However, the licensure of establishments by the North Carolina Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy has not gone into effect.   

Wilkins says in 2018, the Board developed rules to implement the licensure process for establishments, however, these rules were objected to and they now have to go to the North Carolina legislature before they can go into effect. He says that is currently happening.

Wilkins also says there are many illegitimate, illicit establishments that advertise “massage” that provide services by persons who are not licensed LMBTs.  Some of these businesses are alleged to provide sexual services and they are provided by non-licensed persons who may also be victims of human trafficking.

The Durham sheriff’s office says its investigation into illegal sexual activity at massage parlors is ongoing. Durham police says their special victims unit is also working to fight human trafficking.

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