By ED RUNYAN
Police were working behind the scenes while city officials and community activists were working legislatively over the past year to put a stop to the suspected sex trade at Warren’s massage parlors.
Their investigation culminated Wednesday morning in raids on eight of the city’s 10 massage parlors by nearly 60 state investigators and Warren police, who came in search of physical evidence to corroborate what they had learned during interviews.
“We know it’s prostitution,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Wednesday of the activity discovered at the parlors since last July by way of interviews with customers and former employees.
DeWine, standing in front of the Sun Spa on West Market Street with Warren Mayor Doug Franklin just after the raids started at 10 a.m., said the yearlong investigation involved interviews with 38 customers and turned up “a ton of prostitution.”
Details of the interviews were contained in an affidavit filed with Trumbull County Common Pleas Court in support of the search warrants, which were approved by Judge W. Wyatt McKay.
The raids were designed to recover physical evidence such as devices and materials associated with sexual activity, records, canceled checks, credit-card receipts, bank-deposit slips, computers, other electronic devices and video-surveillance data, DeWine said.
He expected agents, including forensic experts and crime-scene investigators from his Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, to remain at the eight sites throughout the day. No arrests were going to be made Wednesday, but a variety of criminal charges is possible at a later date, DeWine said.
The affidavit said investigators expect to find additional evidence of prostitution, promoting prostitution, human trafficking and engaging in organized crime.
A DeWine spokesperson said late Wednesday that charges also are possible against the “johns.”
DeWine said one goal of the investigation is to stop prostitution, but “really the question” he hoped investigators could answer through their work Wednesday and onward is whether human trafficking is taking place in the parlors.
DeWine said what he saw personally inside the Sun Spa suggested as much.
There were four sleeping bags on the floor of the parlor, which DeWine said is “not a good sign” and might suggest that women working there are being forced to work at the parlors against their will.
A North Bloomfield man told an investigator he could get any type of sexual activity he wanted for about $140 at one of the parlors, and he suspected “some of the females ‘do not want to be working at these places.’” He added that their life may still be better here than in Korea, where they came from.
The affidavit reported that some of the women were driven by a “jockey” from New York City to Warren after arriving in New York from Korea. A different male had been seen driving the women to the Victoria’s Secret store in Eastwood Mall in Niles, the document said.
Jockeys “were persons that would take the women out of the spas so they could go shopping,” a 56-year-old Korean woman who worked at the Ocean Spa on North Road until November, told an investigator.
“She stated that she performed sexual acts on men for a fee,” the affidavit said. The woman described the prices as being between $50 and $300. “She went on to state that she knew a lot of the women working at the other spas and that all of the Warren spas are sex-related,” the affidavit said.
Of the 38 customers interviewed after investigators identified them and their vehicles through surveillance cameras, most described the cost for sex and a massage as being $140 to $210.
The customers interviewed were from a wide area, including some as close as Warren, Leavittsburg, North Bloomfield, Canfield and Campbell. Many others were from the Cleveland area — Willoughby, Parma, Amherst, Westlake and Shaker Heights. One man was interviewed in his Pepper Pike law office, the affidavit said. Others were from Cuyahoga Falls, Shelby, Louisville and Austinburg.
The raids didn’t shut down the eight parlors, but DeWine said he thought it would be difficult for them to continue in business anytime soon.
“We hope to shut these houses of prostitution here in Warren,” DeWine said.
Dennis Watkins, Trumbull County prosecutor, who helped secure the search warrants, also will assist the attorney general’s office in determining whether a nuisance action should be filed in an effort to close the parlors, DeWine said.
Warren City Council passed legislation in January forcing the city’s 10 recreational massage parlors to close between midnight and 6 a.m. and imposing larger licensing fees. That followed several anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution demonstrations conducted by Warren citizens and the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative in 2011.
Nine of the 10 parlors have since challenged the legislation in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court. A trial is scheduled for July 30.
Cheryl Saffold, a Warren council member who worked extensively on the massage parlor legislation, said she didn’t know anything like the raids were coming. Her first reaction when she heard about the raids was, “Thank God,” she said.
“Myself personally and a lot of citizens of Warren and the faith-based community wanted to see this for a long time. We felt there was criminal activity, but we had no way to prove it. For the state of Ohio to come in is a dream come true,” Saffold added.
The attorney general said the investigation began a short time after a group of Warren citizens asked him for help during a meeting May 25, 2011, in the basement of St. Dominic Church in Youngstown.
That was followed by a letter from Warren Police Chief Tim Bowers June 2, 2011, also asking for the attorney general’s help.
DeWine said it was necessary to deploy state resources to help the city because the job was too big for Warren police to handle alone.
“Unfortunately, this great city ... for some reason has become the epicenter for prostitution in this part of the state,” DeWine said.
Franklin thanked DeWine for “helping us with this huge problem of prostitution in our city and alleged human trafficking.”
Anyone with information about these businesses that could aid in the investigation cancall the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation at 1-855-BCI-OHIO.
• Fantasy Spa, 1523 Youngstown Road SE
• Fuji Spa, 1446 Parkman Road NW
• Gemini Health Spa, 2414 Youngstown Road SE
• Hong Kong Spa, 2019 W. Market St. SW
• Sun Spa, 2819 W. Market St. NW
• Moon Night Spa, 3875 Youngstown Road SE
• Ocean Spa, 2000 North Road SE
• Tokyo Health Spa, 2970 Parkman Road NW
Source: Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine