Riding along on a Dallas sex-trafficking raid, a brothel cloaked as a massage parlor is exposed

The short strip mall on Walnut Hill Lane, next to a mechanic’s shop, sat empty for years, its sole tenant a sub shop that eventually became a pizzeria now run by a Palestinian man.

For almost a decade, for-lease signs hung in giant windows displaying blank interiors. Then, in 2016, came two new tenants, Number 1 and Lucky Haven, followed a year later by a place called New York, New York sandwiched between the two.

Brightly lit signs were installed over doorways. The windows were covered up, the storefronts decorated with strips of LED lights colored blue, green and red. Inside, construction workers filled the empty shells with rooms, showers, kitchens. Outside, illuminated OPEN signs were flipped on and never turned off.

I live 2 miles from this strip center near Stemmons Freeway — have most of my life — and drive past it often. Seldom have I given this place much thought, except to wonder, occasionally, what these nondescript storefronts were selling. I never imagined the answer would be “sex with victims of human trafficking.”

But this was before I was told how truly widespread these parlors are in this part of town, in tucked-away corners and in plain sight — and before I saw it up close, during a raid this week at Number 1. This is a problem increasingly imported by owners who live as far away as Thailand and Korea. And for now, at least, Dallas has just 12 vice officers tasked with eradicating it.

Tuesday night, just after sunset, those officers, with backup from narcotics and patrol officers, raided Number 1 after a months-long investigation. Detectives rounded up two women in their 60s, managers called “mama-sans” on websites, in customer reviews, then by cops and social workers who have spent years investigating these illicit businesses. They were between shifts: A car pulled up to drop off one manager and pick up another.

The Dallas Police vice unit raided a massage parlor named Number 1 on Walnut Hill Lane in...The Dallas Police vice unit raided a massage parlor named Number 1 on Walnut Hill Lane in northwest Dallas Tuesday night. It has been there for three years.

(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

Both women – 67-year-old Yong-Cha Yi Shim and 62-year-old Sun Cha Yoon — were arrested and charged with aggravated promotion of prostitution, a third-degree felony.

A third manager, previously unknown to police, was merely detained, because officers did not have a warrant for her arrest. This woman, elderly and with a hacking cough, sat on the ground near the side entrance, where someone had tossed an empty condom wrapper.

Undercover officers wearing knit masks through which you could see only their eyes found six women inside. Another showed up later, reporting for work even with the place surrounded by cop cars with flashing lights. Two were Thai; two, Korean; three, Hispanic. All appeared to be in their 20s. Only one, a woman from El Salvador who refused to talk to officers, was taken into custody, because she had an immigration detainer.

The rest met with cops in the command center parked along Walnut Hill, then with social services providers on site who offered them shelter, a second chance. Their work, I will detail in coming days. Dallas is one of the few cities in the country where workers are not treated like criminals.

Two of three managers of the Number 1 massage parlor in northwest Dallas were taken into...Two of three managers of the Number 1 massage parlor in northwest Dallas were taken into custody Tuesday night and placed into a squad car by patrol officers after the Dallas Police vice unit raided the place. They were charged with aggravated promotion of prostitution, a third-degree felony.

(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

Officers on the scene referred to most of the women who worked at the Number 1 as “victims” and “survivors,” because many were likely lured here with false promises of new jobs and new lives, then ultimately stranded in a strange place and forced to have sex for money. Many of these women, too, are forced to live on the premises. Inside, there was ample proof of this.

In the back of Number 1 were two small rooms, each containing giant wood frames covered with thin and worn rubber mats and tossed sheets and comforters. Here, the women slept next to each other when they were not working. Their suitcases were stashed beneath the giant bed frames.

The women’s personal belongings were strewn about the rooms, or kept in stacks of plastic drawers. There were bookshelves, too, lined along the bottom with high-heeled shoes. Higher up on the shelves were bottles filled with gels, lubricants and massage oils.

Big-screen televisions, connected to surveillance cameras posted outside the front and back doors, hung on the walls of these communal bedrooms. When they were not working, cops say, the women were expected to keep an eye on the building’s entrances and exits to watch for customers – and cops.

There were several other smaller rooms, each with beds, chairs and tables covered with bottle of gels, bowls filled with wrapped mints and boxes of tissues. In two of the rooms were giant shower stalls containing beds made of white plastic pipes covered with thick green plastic mats.

In one room, a customer left a white University of California Santa Barbara baseball cap on a table; in another, a discarded condom wrapper lay on a bed next to a small container of liquid soap. “Caught in the act,” said a masked officer as we toured the premises once it was secured.

Dallas police had a warrant for two of the three managers, or "mama-sans," found at the...Dallas police had a warrant for two of the three managers, or “mama-sans,” found at the Number 1 massage parlor Tuesday night. Two were arrested; one was left to lock up the building.

(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

The hallways were painted pink, the ceilings lined with more red LED lights. There was an ATM in the middle; toward the back, a kitchen stocked with an oven and refrigerator and washing machines. On the table lay a half-eaten meal next to a ledger noting the times customers arrived and how much they had paid – “5” for a $50 half-hour session, “6” for the full hour costing $60.

Detectives found $5,897 on the premises. The detectives in vice who track the financial operations of these parlors say the money is often sent overseas, after it’s funneled through Asian banks.

Tuesday night’s warrant execution was months in the making, sparked by the June shutdown of another illicit massage parlor directly across Walnut Hill — Bali, it was called — in a shopping center next to a Mexican restaurant and a liquor store. During that raid, vice noticed suspicious activity at Number 1 and dispatched two undercover officers to confirm what they suspected – that sex was sold there, too.

Perhaps this comes as no surprise to you. This part of Dallas, through which Harry Hines Boulevard slices like a rusty knife, has always trended toward the seedy, the dangerous. Here, Dallas has dumped its strip joints and all-nude clubs and adult bookstores; here, women walk the streets today just as they have done for decades, every day at all hours – Sunday mornings, even, in the hours just before daybreak.

Dallas Police officers combed through purses of massage parlor managers at No. 1 on Walnut...Dallas Police officers combed through purses of massage parlor managers at No. 1 on Walnut Hill Lane in northwest Dallas on Tuesday evening. Police said they found almost $6,000 during the raid.

(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

They were out Tuesday night, as well, strolling up and down Walnut Hill in front of the officer busy securing the Number 1 and interviewing the women who worked there.

This part of town, too, is rife with illicit massage businesses, or IMBs, as they’re known to cops and caseworkers. Vice officers estimate there are between 65 to 80 of these businesses in northwest Dallas alone – in that area bound by Stemmons Freeway, Northwest Highway, Harry Hines and Royal Lane.

Some you can tell straightaway – the so-called spas in strip malls, outside of which you’ll find pickups parked day and night. Others are less obvious, among them the storefronts billed as “natural health centers” and the blackout-window joints offering “foot reflexology.” Owners like that moniker more than most, because it at least sounds legit, though the state does not require licenses for such businesses when they go to the city to secure their certificates of occupancy.

Dallas police believe New York, New York and Lucky Haven, two parlors between Number 1 and...Dallas police believe New York, New York and Lucky Haven, two parlors between Number 1 and the pizzeria on Walnut Hill Lane, moved out after a raid across the street earlier this summer.

(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

Number 1 has been raided before – in June 2016, along with seven other brothels posing as massage parlors, five of which were located within a block of each other along or near Walnut Hill. Fifteen women, owners or managers, were arrested then and charged with third-degree felonies. The raids slowed business, for a moment, but could not stop it. Some closed down or moved to other industrial areas nearby; others, like Number 1 and Green Spa, later reopened.

Their spread accelerated in 2017, after Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall broke up vice and scattered its 20 officers to different departments during an investigation into the unit’s practices. When vice was reconstituted in January of this year, it was with just 12 operational detectives – barely enough to dent the doings in this part of town. Beginning in February, the unit has raided eight massage parlors – one of them, the Green Spa, twice, in May and again in July.

With so few officers, dividing their time between massage parlors and street prostitution and illegal gambling operation, vice does not have the personnel to raid a fraction of the brothels operating in northwest Dallas. They also do not have the authority to shut down these places; city attorneys do. But that process, which goes through the courts, can take months, even years.

When we left Tuesday night, around 11 p.m., vice officers left the keys with the old woman with the hacking cough, wrapped in a blanket on a cool evening. The OPEN signs were still on.

Next: The aftermath

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