Police descended on three massage businesses along a stretch of Georgia highway, part of what they described was a broader campaign against the illicit sex industry in Coweta County. An investigator said the goal had been to root out “human trafficking and child exploitation.”

While authorities said they found no evidence of human trafficking at the three spas, undercover officers engaged in sex acts with some of their workers, then arrested them, according to police reports and county court records describing the June 2019 raids that The Washington Post obtained through a public records request. In one encounter, a sheriff’s deputy repeatedly grabbed a woman while she masturbated him, the documents say, while another undercover officer paid $200 and received oral sex.

Police charged eight female spa workers with prostitution, according to local media outlets, which posted photos of their mug shots on the evening news.

Lawmakers addressed hundreds of demonstrators on March 20 and demanded justice for the eight people shot dead at three spas in the Atlanta area. (Robert Ray /The Washington Post)

In their efforts to rein in illicit massage businesses across the country, police sometimes rely on sting operations in which undercover officers engage in sex acts with spa workers, according to law enforcement experts and police records reviewed by The Post. While such tactics are generally permitted by law, policymakers are beginning to propose new limits on physical contact by police, which they say serves to dehumanize — and potentially traumatize — the very women the raids are purportedly meant to help. The spa owners and operators targeted by law enforcement, experts said, often go unpunished.

The incidents in Coweta County “stand out as both egregious and probably fairly typical,” said Erin Albright, an anti-trafficking expert who trains law enforcement agents on how to reform their policies to better support victims.

“I do not believe for a second that whatever the state’s interest might be justifies investigators getting naked and having the worker engage in physical contact of any sort,” she said.

Toby Nix, an investigator for the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office, said in an email that it is not agency policy or practice to take part “in any illegal or immoral activity.” However, in some circumstances, he said, “a serious attempt to engage in criminal activity must take place before an arrest can be made.” He declined to answer questions about the agency’s policies regarding physical contact in police operations, whether any officers violated those policies or if any trafficking charges were filed.

It is unclear exactly how often police engage in sex acts during these operations because no organization tracks them. In two recent examples, Department of Homeland Security agents allegedly engaged in sex acts with suspected trafficking victims in Arizona and a private investigator in Horry County, S.C., working on behalf of local officials, engaged in sexual encounters as part of an undercover investigation into massage businesses, according to media reports.

Such incidents are probably much more common than reported, said Shea Rhodes, co-founder of Villanova University’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, because “the very people who would report it are the most vulnerable,” she said.

Paige Hughes, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of DHS, said the conduct of a “limited number” of agents in the Arizona case “was not consistent with” the agency’s policy and had been referred to its office of professional responsibility for action.

A Horry County spokeswoman declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Advocates also see police stings as counterproductive: More often than not, they leave the spa workers with arrest records that can hurt their chances for employment, housing or other opportunities. Raids can be psychologically traumatizing to women and result in ongoing stress and fear, as well as distrust of law enforcement, said Grace Chang, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara whose work focuses on human trafficking and immigrant women.

Some jurisdictions are beginning to consider stricter limits around physical contact by police, including prohibitions against skin-to-skin contact, as well as the verbal humiliation or degradation of sex workers. Officers are expressly barred from engaging in sexual intercourse during undercover stings in every state — Michigan became the last in 2017 — according to Bridgette Carr, founding director of the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic.

Others are going even further: Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in late March said her office would no longer prosecute low-level offenses, including prostitution, because such charges tend to “criminalize mostly people of color.”

Concerns over the illicit massage industry and the plight of its workers gained urgency last month after tragedy unfolded in Georgia: A man fatally shot four people at a spa 30 minutes north of Atlanta, then killed four others at Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa in the city. The accused gunman told police he frequented two of the locations and viewed the female employees as “temptations” he needed to “eliminate.” The Post previously reported the spas had been the target of police stings years before the shootings, but there is no evidence that any of the victims were sex workers.

Investigators also are exploring racism as a possible motive for the attacks, which targeted Asian-owned businesses and claimed the lives of six Asian women. The harmful stereotype of Asian women as sexualized and subservient has been pervasive in American history and culture for more than a century.

There are more than 150,000 massage businesses in the United States, including storefronts and independent contractors, according to the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals, an industry group. The size of the illicit massage industry is difficult to measure and a matter of debate between anti-trafficking groups, who say there are 9,000 to 11,000 of those businesses in the United States, and advocates for sex workers, who contend those estimates are far too high.

Though many sex workers opt in by choice, experts say a portion of massage businesses force women to work under the threat of violence, deportation or financial ruin. Prosecuting such crimes is difficult because the victims often are afraid to talk to authorities and the owners of illicit spas commonly hide their identities under layers of shell companies, law enforcement experts said.

The Georgia attack raised questions over how to better regulate this industry. Anti-trafficking groups, including the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, are pressing for more targeted enforcement against sex-trafficking rings, which they contend have global reach, to help the women lured into working for them.

Other advocates say that further law enforcement intervention would do more harm, pointing to past efforts to police brothels that generally end with women — usually, women of color — in jail cells. Amy Farrell, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, says society would be better served targeting the structural inequalities that might lead women to commercial sex work in the first place.

“We have framed human trafficking as a criminal issue, with nefarious offenders and innocent victims, but life is often more complicated than that,” Farrell said. “It requires that we think about commercial sex work as a form of labor, which is uncomfortable for some people.”

The Coweta County stings were part of an operation to combat sex trafficking that lasted from June 2019 to November 2020, Nix said in an email. Though authorities said they found no trafficking victims during the three initial raids, he said the broader investigation ultimately resulted in 79 arrests on charges “ranging from prostitution, pimping, weapons, drugs.” Nix said investigators also identified and assisted “several” victims of human trafficking, though he declined to provide details on what form that assistance took.

ICE agents took part in the raids to help determine whether any women were being trafficked, according to the police reports. Hughes, the agency spokeswoman, was “not aware of any ICE employee misconduct” in the Coweta County operation and said the agency was not involved in planning the stings.

Zachary Gaeta, an attorney for one of the women arrested, said Coweta County prosecutors dropped all charges against his client because, they told him, they were embarrassed about the police conduct and didn’t want details of the incident coming to light. Still, he said, the woman was recently denied an apartment because the arrest showed up in her background check; her mug shot still appears next to a Google search for her name.

“You are still stuck with this stigma,” Gaeta said. “Even if you get the case dismissed, and get it wiped clean, it’s not completely clean.”

The three Coweta County spas were shut down after the stings and their former owners could not be reached for comment. Prosecutors involved in these cases did not respond to requests for comment.

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The massage industry is governed by a patchwork of state and local regulations, with wide disparities and spotty enforcement. Many states have massage boards that have only the authority to license individual massage therapists, while the job of approving and revoking business licenses falls to local governments, said Craig Knowles, chairman of the massage board for the state of Georgia.

Police busts may cause individuals to lose their licenses but rarely have much effect on the business owners, who can swap out those employees or reopen at a new location after a raid, according to law enforcement experts.

Workers advocates stress the importance of distinguishing between consensual sex work and trafficking. There are a variety of reasons people may work in the sex industry, they say. Some enjoy the work or have found it to be a good source of income, while others might be victims of abuse or exploitation.

But the criminalization of sex work — Nevada is the only state with legal brothels — discourages trafficking victims from coming forward because they fear prosecution, they said.

“When workers are excluded from even the minimal protections we have in the United States, they are easily exploited,” said Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, an alliance of human-trafficking survivors and advocates.

Sex trafficking is a common target for politicians who want to appear tough on crime and show compassion for victims. Since the early 2000s, when the first federal anti-human-trafficking laws were enacted, news releases and media reports have touted the number of arrests and “rescues” made during raids — though those numbers have in some cases been found to be inflated.

One of the largest early stings, Operation Gilded Cage, was a coordinated effort between federal and local authorities, including the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, led at the time by Kamala D. Harris.

The nine-month effort, which culminated in 10 raids and 45 arrests at massage businesses in San Francisco and Los Angeles, was hailed by law enforcement as one of the nation’s largest prostitution busts: Agents seized $3 million and detained about 120 women at a military base, where they were questioned for 24 hours. While none of the defendants faced trafficking-related offenses, most were deported, according to Kathleen Kim, a professor at Loyola Law School who co-authored California’s anti-trafficking law and provided legal representation to the women arrested during the raid.

A spokeswoman for Vice President Harris declined to comment.

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Many law enforcement agencies have no written policies that go beyond state bans on sexual intercourse and do not specify how much sexual contact is allowed by undercover officers in sting operations, police experts said. That ambiguity has allowed some law enforcement agents to engage in conduct that civil rights advocates view as abuse of power.

Police reports often downplay the level of sexual interaction that occurs during stings, and cameras are seldom used to record the interactions, said Joanna E. McClinton, a Democratic state representative in Pennsylvania and a former public defender. Although the women she represented in court often told her that police officers went much further than they had indicated in their reports, they usually didn’t feel comfortable bringing those concerns before a judge, she said.

“It’s one person’s word over the officer, and prosecutors would usually say these officers would never do anything like that,” she said.

Though several experts who reviewed the police report from the Coweta County raid believe some officers engaged in inappropriate physical contact, there was more debate about a series of stings the Atlanta Police Department conducted from 2008 to 2013 at a cluster of businesses 20 minutes north of downtown: Gold Spa, Aromatherapy Spa, Spring Spa, St. Jame Spa and Fuji Spa.

Plainclothes policemen repeatedly visited these businesses and paid women for massages, then agreed to pay for sex acts, according to police reports obtained by The Post through public records requests. In at least nine incidents, officers did not initiate the arrest until after the women began touching them sexually, the records say — even though legal experts say verbal agreement alone is sufficient cause for arrest under Georgia law.

In six of those nine cases, the officers were negotiating the price of sexual services when the women were touching them, according to the records, which included written accounts from the officers themselves. In at least two incidents, sexual contact continued after a verbal deal was reached, records show. In one case, it was unclear whether any transaction was discussed. In all cases, records show the arrests appeared to occur shortly after contact turned physical, but in no case was the length of the physical contact described.

The women appeared to be living at the spas, said John Brock, a retired sergeant and a former supervisor of the Atlanta vice squad when it carried out some of the stings. Most of the women told investigators little about their circumstances, but a few said their passports had been withheld while they worked off debts incurred coming to this country, he said. They were referred to federal immigration authorities because police were investigating prostitution, not human trafficking, Brock said.

No evidence of legal action against the spa owners could be found in public records. The owners of Gold Spa, Aromatherapy Spa and Spring Spa and former owners of the shuttered St. Jame Spa and Fuji Spa could not be reached for comment.

Police repeated the routine — raid, arrest, interrogate — over and over, busting the same businesses and sometimes the same women, the records show. From 2008 to 2013, the city’s vice squad conducted at least 54 stings at the five spas, making a total of 108 arrests. “When it was raining, the prostitutes on the street weren’t out, so we would hit the spas,” Brock said.

Brock denied that officers engaged in sex acts. Rather, he said, the women had been “pushing the issue” of sex, including touching the officers sexually before they could stop them. He said he could not speak to operations that occurred after he retired in 2011.

Sgt. John Chafee, a spokesman for the Atlanta police, said in a statement that “it was extremely common for someone engaging in prostitution to begin touching their potential customer while negotiating the specifics of the deal. Immediately stopping them would increase suspicion they were an undercover officer and potentially place them in danger.”

Four legal experts interviewed by The Post said arrests can be made without sexual contact. “In order to have prostitution, you have to exchange money for sex,” said Brad Rideout, a defense attorney who has worked on cases involving allegations of sexual misconduct by law enforcement agents. “Officers should not have sex with suspects in any investigation or use any sort of sexual touching, fondling or any use of sexual organs to solve a crime,” he said.

“Touching is not required in prostitution cases,” said Loyola’s Kim.

Atlanta police arrested dozens of women for prostitution or operating without a massage license during the stings, according to records. The Post attempted to contact the women named in the reports and was unable to reach them. None of the officers named in the reports responded to requests for comments.

Although vice units are still common in police departments across the country, Atlanta police disbanded its vice squad in 2015 to put more focus on violent crimes and take a more “victim centered approach” to the sex business, spokesman Chafee said in his statement. Based on an initial review, he said, the vice squad incident reports from 2008 to 2013 “do not raise concerns that would warrant opening an investigation and no operational changes are needed as the department no longer engages in these types of operations.”

Law enforcement officials say they’ve shifted course to place more emphasis on helping — rather than apprehending — victims of trafficking. “The culture is changing,” said John Eisert, an assistant director for U.S. Homeland Security Investigations. “We are starting to recognize that these women are victims.”

Eisert said HSI identified and assisted 418 survivors of sex trafficking last year, including some who worked for massage businesses. The agency gives the women shelter when necessary and assigns them “continued presence” immigration status, which allows them to stay in the country to work, he said.

Investigators say some illicit massage businesses are part of sprawling criminal enterprises that can span dozens of establishments and several states. But authorities struggle to identify the operators of these networks because they go to extremes to distance themselves from the storefront businesses, said Camila Zolfaghari, a former prosecutor of sex trafficking in Georgia who is now an executive director of the anti-trafficking group Street Grace.

“They do not look like criminals,” Zolfaghari said. “Often they are very successful businessmen, they are property owners, they work collaboratively with other businessmen to invest in, to own, to exploit people in these illicit spas while protecting themselves from law enforcement.”

In 2018, anti-trafficking group Polaris researched 6,000 illicit massage businesses and found only 28 percent had an actual person’s name listed on the business registration.

In February, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota said authorities had extradited Sumalee Intarathong, a 59-year-old Thai woman accused of running an operation that lured hundreds of women from Thailand to the United States with the promise of a job in the massage industry. Prosecutors say Intarathong and her associates effectively “owned” these women, who were forced into prostitution to pay off “bondage debt” that ran from $40,000 to $60,000, according to her indictment.

Prosecutors have said one key to taking down the operation and convicting 36 co-conspirators was identifying the financial apparatus behind it. The organization dealt mostly in cash and engaged in money laundering to conceal illegal profits, the indictment said. The women opened bank accounts that were controlled by the criminal organization while “house bosses” collected portions of the women’s earnings and sent them back to traffickers, prosecutors alleged. Intarathong was arrested in Belgium in 2016; her lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

The complexity of such organizations is a powerful shield against prosecution, especially if investigators have to cross state lines and persuade multiple agencies to join the effort, Zolfaghari said. The traffickers often benefit, she said, “from a lack of focus and a lack of resources,” on the part of law enforcement.

Rather than go after traffickers, some cities and states have turned their attention to culling demand for sexual services — arresting the men who frequent such establishments. Even so, advocates say, there are few consequences for the men who buy sex.

In a high-profile case two years ago, more than two dozen men — including Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots — were charged with soliciting prostitution in Florida. Those charges were later dropped, after an appeals court determined that undercover video had been obtained illegally and could not be used at trial, though multiple spa workers faced penalties. Three women, including an owner and a manager, pleaded guilty to prostitution-related charges, drawing thousands of dollars in fines, probation and community service. A fourth employee served 60 days in jail.

A spokeswoman for the New England Patriots said Kraft was not available for comment. Neither the Jupiter Police Department nor the Martin County Sheriff’s Office responded to requests for comment. A spokesman for Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who dropped the charges against the men, declined to comment.

“After all of those headlines about all of those men who were in positions of power, what ends up happening at the end of the day? The only people charged were the women,” said Farrell of Northeastern University.

As Atlanta mourns the eight shooting victims, city officials have tried to avoid getting swept into the regulation debate. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who initially told reporters she wasn’t aware of any illegal activity at the spas, later clarified through a spokesman that she had learned about the prostitution stings only after her remarks.

Michael Smith, a spokesman for the mayor, said in a statement that “to the best of our knowledge, there have been no substantiated reasons during this administration to revoke business licenses at these properties.”

Still, some community members fear recent events could trigger a new wave of crackdowns that ignore the lessons from law enforcement’s problematic past.

“I don’t think law enforcement can be the ones to keep Asian migrants and massage workers safe,” said Yves Nguyen, an organizer with Red Canary Song, a group of migrant sex workers and advocates pushing for the decriminalization of the sex industry. “We want people to understand and respect sex workers. What do they want? They want to be safe. They don’t want to be policed.”

Hannah Denham, Alice Crites and Nate Jones contributed to this report.