Hiding in Plain Sight
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - They're in shopping centers, strip malls, and some are even scattered in our neighborhoods, but more than 30 massage parlors in Colorado Springs are little more than a front for an illegal sex industry.
Reader discretion is advised, some of these details are sexually explicit.
GALLERY: A look at who owns massage parlors linked to the sex trade in Colorado Springs
Massage parlors mask hidden sex industry in Colorado Springs
A KRDO special report found that there are 36 massage parlors in the city that have recent reviews specifically outlining explicit sexual acts that can be purchased inside. That’s more than there are licensed brothels in the entire state of Nevada.
Those reviews are publicly available on seedy websites like RubMaps and CityXGuide. Those sites — like now-defunct Backpage.com, which was seized by the U.S. Government — offer a way for customers, known as Johns, to find locations where they can purchase sexual acts.
So what do all of the reviews have in common? They make it clear the women inside these massage parlors are selling oral and vaginal sex. The reviews also grade women on their physical appearance, hygiene, and even breast size.
We paid for a membership to one of those websites to see how many locations were being actively reviewed. Many parlors had multiple reviews.
Over the course of our four-month investigation, we found the 36 spots dotted across a map of the city and county. (Note: Since our initial investigation, some of these parlors have closed.)
There are also the advertisements posted online — some are subtle, but others are explicit and very graphic.
“They’re selling sex,” said Lt. Mark Comte, who supervises the Vice and Human Trafficking Unit with the Colorado Springs Police Department. “They’re showing young girls wearing barely anything … this business, when posting these ads, is demonstrating it’s a house of prostitution.”
Customers usually pay a house fee to enter the spa, and then they pay extra for certain sex acts. For more involved sex, men are paying up to $150.
“The money is paid in cash; there’s no ‘We take Visa, Mastercard or American Express,” said Comte. “The girl performing the act may get a little bit.”
But most, if not all, of the money will end up going to the manager on site, known as the “mama-san.” The mama-sans usually refer to an older Asian woman in charge of the parlor.
That includes Sang White, who was arrested in 2014 for suspicion of human trafficking, pimping, and providing a place of prostitution at the World Spa near Hancock Expressway.
White was never convicted of anything more than a misdemeanor, and she’s still listed as an operator at World Spa, according to state records.
We decided to pay White a visit at the World Spa. They wouldn’t let Stephanie Sierra inside, so we went back a few days later and Andrew McMillan spoke with one of the workers.
We asked the worker if she was aware that there are reviews online saying customers can purchase sex acts at that location, and we even showed the worker a printout of the reviews when she initially said “no.”
“You can see where it says sex acts right here,” we said to the employee, pointing out the explicit review.
“No, no,” the employee responded.
“You’re not worried about getting busted again?” we asked, referring to White’s 2014 arrest.
“We do not do none of that,” the employee said before slamming the door.
One of the reviewers of World Spa gave high marks to a girl named Mimi. The review, posted in late January 2019, says “[Mimi] is about 25 years old with a perfect body that loves to be f***** good and hard.” The reviewer outlines different sexual positions he allegedly performed with the woman, and another review gave a similar account. Other reviewers said they weren’t able to meet Mimi; one added that the “mama-san is a fun time, but I’m sure she pales in comparison to performances described in the various reviews here about Mimi.”
We had also surveilled World Spa in late March to see where the employees go whenever the parlor closes for the day. We got there at 8:30 p.m. and waited until a woman turned off the open sign at 10 p.m.
We watched the front and the back for the next three hours, but no staff came out.
Oftentimes, the women are forced to live inside the parlor.
“It’s very sad,” Comte said. “Their dignity is being stripped from them and they don’t even realize it.”
Authorities say they believe it’s common for the women to sleep inside the same spas they work in, often sharing beds in the same room. Police say there are roughly two sex workers per parlor, which works out to about 70 women working in El Paso County alone.
But before they get to Colorado Springs, where do these women come from?
“Our experience here are these women are usually from [North or South] Korea and China, and they usually come into the West Coast through California and then make their way eastward,” Comte said.
The women are usually in their late teens to early 20s when they reach the West Coast, but by the time they get here, they’ve been working for several years.
“These women will start out their younger years in the bigger markets. There’s more demand for it and more of a customer base for it, but then as they age, younger girls come in to take their place … that’s where we start to see them in Colorado Springs,” Comte said.
Comte said after that much time in the sex trade, many of them don’t feel like they have a choice and don’t feel there is something else that life has to offer them.
Co. Springs looks to Aurora in fight against illegal massage parlors
Our exposé shining a light on illegal sex acts inside more than 30 Colorado Springs massage parlors prompted a common question from many of our viewers: What is the city going to do about it?
There are as many as 36 illicit massage parlors that are currently open in Colorado Springs, according to our research. Meanwhile, the city of Aurora shut down 19 illicit Asian spas in the course of a year.
What made Aurora so successful? They passed ordinances specifically aimed at shutting these operations down.
“It got so bad, we had to take action,” said Aurora City Councilman Charlie Richardson. “This is the most dramatic impact that I have ever seen in my 30 years with the city.”
Richardson and his colleagues passed ordinances in 2018 that tighten regulations on massage parlors. The ordinances prohibit things like people living inside the business, odd hours of operation, lingerie attire, and online sexual advertising.
But one of Aurora’s ordinances solves a big problem that faces Colorado Springs police in the battle against these spas.
“We’ll shut down a spa, either through an arrest or court injunction, and they just open up as another name, under a new owner, or they swap spas,” said Lt. Mark Comte with CSPD’s Vice unit.
One example is
AppleTree, Ocean, Eve Spa. The parlor off Bismark Road first opened as Apple Tree Spa before a police bust. Then the spa reopened as Ocean Spa — but it got busted again and reopened as Eve Spa.
Trevor Vaughn, who works with Aurora’s Tax & Licensing Department, says those patterns can be stopped.
“In our ordinance, when we shut down an illicit massage business, it has to be something else for 24 months before it can be a massage business again,” Vaughn said. “Make sure that operation changes over.”
That means when a spa is shut down in Aurora, another massage business can’t open at that location for two years. The goal is to force the illicit business owners out of the city and out of the county.
Richardson said, “If a city does not adopt an ordinance like this, it’s negligence, it’s malpractice.”
We brought the ordinance to Colorado Springs city councilmembers and showed our findings in the city.
“We love to look at best practices to learn from other communities, especially within the state, so very happy to look at that,” said Councilwoman Jill Gaebler.
But it’s one thing to “look” at regulations, and another to actually enact them. We’ve sent copies of Aurora’s ordinance to Mayor John Suthers, his staff, and each city council member and county commissioner to ask them directly what we can do to address the prevalence of Asian spas masking the sex trade in Colorado Springs.
City officials give little promise of action in response to illicit Asian spas
In Colorado Springs, an adult arcade, an adult video store, and even an adult theater all qualify as a sexually-oriented business. It’s written in chapter two of our city code. Yet, all 36 active Asian spas in Colorado Springs don’t.
Despite the fact, sex is clearly depicted for sale in visual and written ads online.
So we wanted to know why.
Our team emailed the city clerk who told us spas “don’t fit within the definition of the city code for sexually-oriented businesses.”
We found that a bit strange, given the sexual nature of these businesses clearly fits in line with several categories listed in the definition online.
So we asked Mayor John Suthers: why can’t we change this? We were a bit surprised by his response.
“Only if they advertise themselves as such, a sexually-oriented business, is one that holds itself out as a sexually-oriented business,” said Suthers.
Except, that’s exactly what these spas are doing. All 36 spas clearly advertise sex.
“They’re not going to say in their advertising, this is a sex club, if it was number one it would be illegal or subject to licensing,” Suthers said.
Yet, we hear the Mayor admit himself: if these businesses advertise as such, they should be subject to licensing.
It would be another layer of accountability for these spas and make it easier for police to shut them down.
Colorado Springs Police Lieutenant Mark Comte agrees.
“We have not caught up completely with our statutes to the proliferation of spas in the Colorado Springs area,” Comte said.
Another law that could be enforced prohibits workers from living inside the business. You may remember Stephanie’s conversation with a woman believed to be human trafficked at Rose Spa on April 30th.
“Do you live here,” Stephanie asked.
“Live, no leave… no leave,” the woman answered.
“Ohh you don’t leave?” Stephanie said.
“Yes, don’t leave. Don’t leave,” she answered.
Our team also surveilled three other spas, each for three hours after closing and no workers came out.
Another sign these women are being held against their will.
So we brought these findings to city councilwoman Jill Gaebler.
“You cannot live in commercial zoning without appropriate facilities, we as a city should be looking into that,” Gaebler said.
Underground society in Colorado Springs frequents illicit parlors
Before our series started, this group started warning other members of “Rubmaps,” an online site that reviews erotic parlors, about our coverage.
We know prostitution won’t stop. But does that mean brothels should be operating in our own shopping centers?
You may remember the ads, pictured above, that ran on TV promoting our series. The commercial clip caught the attention of a specific group online: members of Rubmaps.
As we’ve mentioned in previous reports, these men aren’t paying for a traditional massage.
They’re paying for sex. We know that because it’s all posted, very explicitly, on Rubmaps.com.
It’s graphic content, but we’re showing you because this is the reality.
In reviews of all 36 spas in greater Colorado Springs, men are boasting about the breast size, weight, and physical hygiene of these women, many of whom are being trafficked, held in these spas against their own will.
You may remember Stephanie Sierra’s conversation with one worker at Rose Spa. “Do you leave?” Stephanie asked. “No leave, no leave,” the woman said.
Yet the people, mainly men, posting on Rubmaps somehow see humor in human trafficking.
In response to our coverage, users wrote:
Yet the reality is most of these women don’t see any money.
Just ask Julee Bellar, the chairman of the Human Trafficking Task Force of Southern Colorado.
“We’re not doing anything about it… maybe there’s just not that many people who care,” Bellar said.
That leaves these victims thinking: “What else is there for me?”
“That’s exactly the question,” said Bellar.
We can only hope our city will address that question.
Aurora shuts down 19 illicit spas, Colorado Springs to follow
The Aurora legislation shut down 19 illicit spas in the city within just over a year.
“It became so bad, we had to take action,” said Aurora City Councilman Charlie Richardson, one of the brains behind this ordinance that tightened regulation of massage parlors back in 2018.
The rules of the ordinance did what Aurora city leaders intended it to do: shut down the illegal activity. But the problem didn’t go very far.
As our news partners in Denver discovered, the spas just reopened next door in Denver’s city limits where the rules restricting illegal activity are more lax.
“Denver doesn’t have a lot of regulation for massage parlors,” said Trevor Vaughn, with Aurora’s Tax and Licensing division. “A big part of Denver’s issue is there’s not a pre-screening of the business before they get a license. Additionally, when they see things that are signs of illicit massage businesses they don’t violate Denver’s ordinance.”
We’re seeing the same problems in Colorado Springs, which is why our team has urged our city council to take action.
“Where is this on your priority list?” Stephanie Sierra asked City Council President Richard Skorman.
“It’s a big priority, we’ve all been watching the local coverage you’ve been doing and it is more of an issue than we realized, so we want to see what options are out there,” said Skorman.
As the city moves forward with legislation, we can only expect that spas forced out of the city limits will move to the county, as we see happening in Denver.
El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller says he’s ready to tackle this problem.
“This shouldn’t be a circumstance where we’re playing Whack-a-mole, where we knock it down in one place and it opens up some place else,” said Waller. “We got to get at the root of the problem, we have to attack this from a criminal justice perspective.”
Waller intends to look into how we can prosecute these criminal enterprises to the fullest extent of the law.
Editor’s note for context: According to RubMaps, there were 30 illicit spas in Aurora two years ago. Now, 19 of them are shut down. Eight are reported as ‘non-erotic.’ Only three reported as ‘erotic’ remain.
KRDO exposes property owners enabling illicit spas with ties to human trafficking
Since our “Hiding in Plain Sight” investigation into southern Colorado’s Asian spas started in May, our team has uncovered many layers of illegal activity, the worse being signs of human trafficking happening right in our own backyard.
But we were shocked by the response from one of the most important groups involved in enabling these illicit businesses to keep operating: the property owners leasing to the spas.
Reporter Stephanie Sierra traveled across the state to inform each and every member of this group of the illegal activity going on. But most of the owners felt no responsibility to step in.
One of the most belligerent interviews was with the owner of the Colorado Springs property where Lotus Massage resides, Michael Reeg. We were invited to stay at Reeg’s office for the on-camera interview, but within minutes of his arrival the interview became violent.
“Hi, Michael. I’m Stephanie with NewsChannel 13,” Sierra said as she waited in the lobby of his business “Tri-Star Masonry.”
“What do you need?” Reeg asked.
“I just have a couple questions for you regarding a story we’re working on,” said Sierra.
“OK, hit me with them. Shoot,” Reeg said.
“You’re currently leasing to Lotus Massage,” said Sierra.
“Why don’t you guys get the hell out of here,” Reeg replied.
“Are you aware you’re leasing to an illicit massage parlor?” Sierra asked as she was leaving his office following a scheduled interview.
Reeg then grabbed Sierra’s arm and hit the camera.
Whether it was chaos or causal conversation, our team experienced it all. Some of the owners were civil and open to resolving the issue, like Frank Polland, the property manager of Springs Massage.
“I suggest you take another look,” Sierra said to Polland.
“OK, I will,” he said.
But, most of the 36 who we contacted either showed no interest, were allegedly out of town, or just simply didn’t like our questions.
We repeatedly got many variations of the following responses:
- “All I know is he’s been out of the country for the last 6 to 8 weeks.”
- “Can you stop it? Also… can you stop it?”
- “What was that? I’m not going to talk to you.”
- “I don’t like that question.”
As for the others, many didn’t even make it to the door.
In one case, our attempt to get a comment from property owner Silvio Bonicelli, currently leasing to “A&S Spa” off Fillmore in Colorado Springs, ended with his registered agent running away from our crew and closing down the shop.
We traveled all across the state, hitting nearly every major city and suburb of northern and southern Colorado with the intention to get all sides and alert the group of the illegal activity going on under their watch.
But like the incident with Reeg, most attempts that started with a simple question ended with a belligerent, hostile response.
“Get the f*** out of here,” screamed the son-in-law of the property owners leasing space to Bangkok Thai Spa in Colorado Springs.
“Turn that s*** off,” said the HOA President overseeing the complex where Paris Spa used to be located in Colorado Springs.
Simply put: most of these property owners feel no responsibility to stop this.
John Litherland, for example, is unlike most property owners who lease out their entire strip mall. Litherland leases his single-family home directly to an illicit spa.
“Don’t you feel you have an obligation, as the landlord, you have the authority to end this?” we asked.
“I don’t believe I have an obligation,” Litherland said.
During the interview, we shared with Litherland the explicit reviews made about the spa he’s leasing to called Sweet Relax Therapy.
“I know this exists throughout Colorado Springs, I agree with you,” he told Sierra. “But I believe you’re incorrect.”
Yet despite holding the proof in his hand, he never addressed my question.
“Will you take another look? Because that’s the proof for you right there,” he said.
The example with Litherland is what our team saw time and time again.
The reason why always traced back to money and “looking the other way.”
“I have nothing to do with this, OK?” said Gary Winegar, a prominent real-estate management executive in Colorado Springs.
Winegar’s company “Griffis Blessing” manages the property where one of the spas with the most explicit sale of sex is located.
“All we do is collect the rent, make sure the property is clean and that sort of thing,” said Winegar.
“You have the power to do something,” Sierra said.
“I don’t have the power to do anything,” Winegar answered.
But legal experts don’t agree.
“That statement of no authority to do anything, that didn’t add up,” said attorney Debra Fortenberry.
Just a simple review of their website with Fortenberry, who specializes in commercial real estate law, made it clear Griffis Blessing does have the authority to step in.
On the company website, the following services are offered:
- COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SERVICES
- LEASE ADMINISTRATION
- PROPERTY MANAGEMENT
- TENANT RELATIONS
- LEGAL RISK MANAGEMENT
“Does legal risk management include authorizing legal action against a tenant for breaking the law?” Sierra asked Fortenberry.
“Yes, it does. That’s usually within a typical property management agreement,” Fortenberry said.
A typical commercial lease prohibits illegal activity by a tenant on the premises, giving the property manager and the landlord the authority to evict.
“It has never been easier to take action,” said Fortenberry, citing a recent Colorado law that has streamlined the eviction process when it comes to troubled tenants. “It makes it easier for landlords and their agents including the property managers and even their lawyers to evict.”
But unlike Winegar and his colleagues, our coverage has prompted some to take action or promise to take action, like the owners of the shopping center that lease to Bangkok Thai Spa and My Massage Place.
Since our series has aired, Griffis Blessing reports they’ve notified the property owner of the illegal activity going on at Shiatsu Health Spa. As of Tuesday, it’s still operating.
As a post-note, Colorado Springs Police did cite Reeg with a harassment charge.