COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri’s Attorney General wants to protect people from possible human trafficking inside massage parlors across the state.
Attorney General Eric Schmitt said there are more than 70 illicit massage parlors in Missouri and most of them are using legitimate storefronts to traffic Missourians. Schmitt announced Tuesday, Oct. 20, his office is now investigating these illegal businesses to combat human trafficking through The Hope Initiative.
“We are announcing a first-of-its-kind in the nation statewide initiative targeting illicit massage parlors,” Schmitt said. “More often than not, we discovered that these landlords were unaware of their tenant’s illegal activity.”
Schmitt said it’s time for the state to close these illegal massage parlors.
“It’s the number one reported area for sex trafficking and are havens for prostitution and human trafficking,” Schmitt said.
The Hope Initiative, according to Schmitt, is a three-phase plan. The first phase involved the Attorney General’s office sending letters out to 77 landlords informing them of their tenants’ illegal business. Schmitt said Tuesday, Oct. 20, 23 of the landlords either responded by removing their tenant or not renewing their lease, 17 of them said they are committed to removing their tenant but haven’t started the process yet and one landlord said he refused to evict.
“While it’s our preference to work with these landlords to evict these illicit massage businesses, we are fully prepared to work with prosecutors and law enforcement to enforce the law moving forward,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt said the letters cite several statutes related to public nuisance.
Assistant Attorney General Sarah Jones said signs of an illegal massage business is below-market prices and masseuses living on site.
“There’s a male-only clientele, customers are entering and exiting through side doors or rear doors, windows are blocked off, they have to be buzzed in, in order to get into the business,” Jones said. “It’s a facade of a legitimate business which allows traffickers to operate in plain sight, usually in strip malls and small shops found in our major metropolitan cities as well as small towns around the state.”
In 2018, Polaris estimated around 9,000 illicit massage businesses were operating in the U.S. Schmitt said 77 illicit massage businesses in Missouri were advertising on illegal websites like “Backpage,” “Rubmaps” and “CityXGuide.”
“In Missouri, you’re not going to be able to open these places up,” Schmitt said. “You’re not going to be able to stay in businesses. Missouri is not going to allow you to traffic these human beings into illicit massage parlors.”
The next two phases of The Hope Initiative includes potential lawsuits and criminal cases. Schmitt said there have been no arrests made at this point.