BRATTLEBORO — Pore over the meticulously detailed court filings of the recent law enforcement action against the Rainbow Therapeutic Spa, and several things will jump out at you.
For starters, it becomes obvious that a sting like this one is part of a larger law-enforcement effort - a fact that Detective Lieutenant Michael Studin of the Vermont State Police readily confirmed to The Commons on Aug. 15.
“Vermont is just one stop amongst many in the country, and Brattleboro is just one of the stops of a few within Vermont itself,” he said.
Beyond that, the detective needed to remain circumspect about details about the broader scope of actions against illegal massage businesses, which Polaris, a nonprofit organization that spreads awareness about human trafficking and works to combat it in multiple contexts, describes as “fronts for selling commercial sex - spread across every state in the United States.”
Polaris estimates on its website (polarisproject.org) that 9,000 such businesses are operating in every state in the union, noting that Starbucks operates 8,222 company-owned coffee shops in the country.
The organization's 2017 report defining “the 25 types of modern slavery” outlined a general profile of women who become entangled in illegal massage businesses.
“Most victims of illicit massage businesses are women from the mid-thirties to late fifties from China and South Korea. In other illicit health and beauty businesses, labor trafficking survivors are typically younger females (mid-twenties and older) from Southeast Asia,” the report says.
“Survivors are controlled through coercion, including extreme intimidation, threats of shame, isolation from the outside community, debt bondage, exploitation of communication barriers, and explicit as well as implied threats,” the report continues. “Women are typically forced to live at the business or in another location with their movement controlled between work and home. Day-to-day actions tend to be monitored by a manager, who watches the store in person or off-site with a CCTV camera.”
Indeed, Studin found that throughout the investigation, “there have been no signs that the female employees ever leave the business. There have been no signs of the females coming or going from the business during both in-person and video surveillance,” he wrote in the affidavit. “On a few occasions, the females would exit the front door but that was only to open and close the door.”
“It is believed that the females who work inside the business also live, sleep, and inside the building and that they do not have the freedom to come and go as they please,” he wrote.
“They have a small place to eat, they all sleep in the same room, they're with each other 24-7,” he told The Commons.
Hiding in plain sight
To make his case, Studin had to create a remarkably not-safe-for-work court document, which needed to include a glossary of the internet argot used on the message boards where a network of male patrons post and compare notes about such facilities globally.
If the Rainbow Therapeutic Spa was hiding in plain sight on Putney Road, masquerading as a legitimate bodywork business, then these boards served as a below-the-radar Yelp, guiding potential customers by region to the nondescript strip mall.
Studin said he was surprised at “just how casual it is amongst this crowd of people that visit these [establishments].” He said he was struck by the laissez-faire attitudes of the patrons he interviewed, as well as the casual tone of those posting pseudonymously on the message boards discussing women, prices, sex acts, venues, and the like.
It was, he said, as though they were in “a mountain biking group or something.”
He said that the men he interviewed simply never thought of the human cost of the transaction.
“It's definitely a subculture where this is the norm,” he continued. “Like, they don't see anything wrong with this, there's no criminality to it, you know, morally and ethically they're OK with it.”
He thinks there's at least a small chance that a small group might have changed their perspective. “But there's a larger group of them that probably will never see this as something wrong, sadly.”
Studin said that he and other investigators tried to communicate the seriousness of the situation, by “kind of explaining to them the conditions that these girls operate under. They live, they sleep, they eat, and they work all in the same place. They don't leave.”
He said he'd ask them: “And do you think that if they had a choice, they would decide to wake up at nine or to go to work at nine o'clock [a.m.] till 10 o'clock [p.m.], seven days a week, no holidays, no breaks, and have perform sex acts on strangers every day, all day? The best that they do on a daily basis is take a walk around the back parking lot. So you're telling me that that's their choice.”
“That's the context that we presented to them,” Studin said. “And I'm not sure how after hearing that a normal person could say, yeah, you're right, that is their choice.”
Supporting the victims
As for the three women - maybe referenced in the affidavit or, more likely, newly rotated into the Rainbow Therapeutic Spa - “services were provided to them,” said Studin, who has supervised the VSP's human trafficking unit and has engaged in law-enforcement training on the problem as both a participant and an instructor. “We will continue to stay engaged with them, throughout the process, as long as that's something that they want.”
“Not all victims want to receive services or to even cooperate with the police, for that matter,” he added.
Vermont is treating the women squarely as victims of involuntary servitude, not perpetrators of prostitution, as might once have been the case.
That philosophy change comes through in the “Vermont Human Trafficking Victim Resource Guide,” a document produced by the Vermont Human Trafficking Task Force, of which Studin is a member.
The guidebook “aims to guide a collaborative, trauma response to identifying and responding to cases of suspecting human trafficking in the State of Vermont.” It offers resources for “law enforcement, attorneys and service providers, including providers for youth and families.”
The federally funded task force is “a collaboration of law enforcement, service providers, attorneys, state agencies, federal partners and other community stakeholders.”
A page of goals and principles shapes the state's response to crimes of this nature as requiring sensitivity to the needs of victims of trafficking and to working across agencies - much as the Putney Road investigation was a collaboration at the local, state, and federal levels. The Vermont State Police is working the case jointly with Homeland Security Investigations and the Brattleboro Police Department.
An 'uphill battle'
Noting that the state police resources are “very thin,” Studin said that the “eyes and ears of the public are far more reaching than what we can see.” He implored people to trust their “good sense of right and wrong,” and to contact the police.
“There has been this uphill battle to try to educate Vermonters that human trafficking is going on in the state, has been going on in the state, and really needs to be addressed,” Studin said - it's difficult to break through the presumption that such a thing can't happen in Vermont.
“Well, it does,” he said. “We have a problem here, and it comes in many different shapes and forms.”