“NO SEX SERVICE!!!!!” screams a sign outside the now-shuttered Sunflower Asian Spa. Yet that's exactly the reason why the city of Columbus shut down the spa in early April.
“There was significant evidence of sexual misconduct, human trafficking, women being shoveled in and out and being forced to engage in sex acts,” says Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein.
The former massage business, on Columbus’ West Side inside the Westpointe Plaza retail center, sits next to a T-Mobile. A neon orange “vacant” sign hangs on the glass door, adding vivid color to an otherwise grey backdrop.
Klein says it would have been impossible to shut down the spa without the work of the city's nuisance abatement group. With the help of police, the City Attorney’s Office and outreach organizations, Columbus is cracking down on illegal businesses that promote human and drug trafficking.
What Is A Nuisance Abatement?
According to Ohio Revised Code, any place where “lewdness, assignation, or prostitution is conducted, permitted, continued, or exists” can constitute a nuisance. So can a place where “beer or intoxicating liquor is manufactured, sold, bartered, possessed, or kept in violation of law.”
Columbus' nuisance abatement group is a partnership that allows the city to shut down such places by pooling resources from a variety of organizations. Among the participating groups are the Ohio Health Department, Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and the Salvation Army.
“A lot of times folks think the city can just shut a place down because we think it’s a bad actor or bad operation,” Klein says. “But that would be in violation of the constitution, which is why we actually have to go to an independently elected judge.”
Since each member of the group has a different specialty, Klein says pulling together expertise helps city attorneys build effective cases.
“These cases are hard to build and prove because you need evidence of sex acts,” Klein says. “But at the same time, these women are being held in sexual slavery situations because their human traffickers take their money, take their passports, control their phone calls.”
To shut down a human trafficking spot using the nuisance abatement code required a team effort between law enforcement, city attorneys and Asian American Community Services. Investigators worked on the case from September to March. But Klein says the transient nature of human trafficking makes it impossible to know how many people were trafficked at Sunflower.
“They can be at a massage parlor on the East Side of Columbus one day, the west the next and perhaps be in Cleveland or Chicago the day after that,” Klein says.
According to Klein, Sunflower Asian Spa customers would pay $60 upfront for an hour-long massage and be led to a back room. He says workers would normally request an additional $40 to perform illegal sex acts.
Sunflower Asian Spa was never properly registered with the state, according to Klein, and business operator Yulian Fu had a massage license that expired April 20. The next environmental court hearing is June 25, according to court records.
More Than Arrests
The nuisance abatement group has a wider purpose beyond the stings. Elyse McConnell from Asian American Community Services says her members serve as interpreters and advocates for the women.
“We probably go at least once a month,” McConnell says. “Sometimes it’s just in the context of, we’ll go with the health department if they’re doing their annual inspection anyways. Explain to the women what’s going on.”
They’ll link clients up with resources like English classes. McConnell says trafficking victims in massage parlors are often older than people might think, in their 40s or 50s.
“Usually they’re a little bit isolated because of the language issue,” McConnell says. “They’re often working very long hours and may not have the chance to connect with the community they’re in.”
The nuisance abatement group also works to solve drug issues. Columbus Police Narcotics Bureau Lt. Larry Yates says before the nuisance abatement group formed in 2017, his officers would have to perform repeat shutdowns regularly.
“We were going to crack house after crack house after crack house, then we would go to the first crack house again,” Yates says. “So we looked at ways a few years ago to really shut these crack houses down so we don’t have to go back and go back and go back.”
With the help of information exchanged between agencies, the group shut down 20 drug houses last year. Yates expects more success in 2019.
“This year, we’re looking at probably 30,” Yates says. “We are almost halfway there already, and it’s just getting into the heat of summer.”
Sometimes, the nuisance abatement group does not need to send officers to a doorstep. Klein says a simple warning can be effective.
“Over the past two years, we’ve sent 20 to 25 letters to massage parlors that we believe there was evidence of human trafficking but not yet filed a case,” Klein says. “Twenty of them shut down overnight.”
The nuisance abatement group has had two successful lawsuits so far, and hopes for more down the road. Klein wants to focus on holding everyone involved accountable.
“Clearly it’s more than just the owner of this parlor,” Klein says. “The women are somehow getting there, there’s a broader network in my opinion that needs to be explored.”
Klein says that’s what the nuisance abatement group needs to try to discover as it continues working. He declined to comment on any ongoing cases.