Bellingham WA – The Bellingham Police Department began a human trafficking investigation into an illicit massage business located within the city limits of Bellingham in April of 2016.
According to a press release from Lieutenant Bob Vander Yacht, Bellingham Police Department Public Information Officer, this investigation began with several tips from the public about prostitution and suspicions of human trafficking occurring in the business. Information obtained showed the business employed five women at any given time and most of these women worked seven days a week for twelve to thirteen hours each day.
With the assistance of the Whatcom County Prosecutor’s Office, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) , and the Ferndale Police Department, the almost seven month investigation led investigators to serve search warrants Wednesday at the Bellingham Foot Spa, located at 177 Telegraph Rd as well as a nearby residence where the suspected trafficking victims were housed.
Two people responsible for the daily operations of the business were taken into custody for the crimes of promoting prostitution and leading organized crime. Xiaohua An and Yi Gao were both booked into the Whatcom County Jail. The investigation is ongoing and new charges and more arrests are possible.
Illicit massage businesses are disguised as legitimate massage or spa businesses in an attempt to conceal the illegal activity occurring inside. Most commonly, the crimes occurring at these businesses include human trafficking, prostitution, and money laundering. At first glance, it may appear an illicit massage business may be owned and operated by an individual when in reality, they are one part of a large organized network. Nationwide, it is estimated there are approximately 6,000 illicit massage businesses operating on a given day.
Historically, victims are recruited with promises of employment and a desirable wage. They arrive to find themselves being controlled by debt, threats, and psychological manipulation. This along with cultural and language barriers and limited knowledge of the laws in this country can create a sense of fear which prevents them from seeking help. They feel they have nowhere else to go.
A very difficult aspect of these investigations is that most of the time, the women, or men, do not see themselves as victims of human trafficking. These exploited people are broken down over time to accept this way of living. Lack of self-identification does not mean they have not been trafficked. The women involved in this situation will need long term assistance from support services to help them recover. Investigators are working with non-governmental advocacy groups to help them escape the victimization.
Investigators will now be examining evidence obtained during the service of the search warrants. More charges are possible. If you have any information regarding this business that may be helpful to investigators, please call our investigators at 360-778-8678.
Information provided by Lieutenant Bob Vander Yacht, Bellingham Police Department