A police raid on an illicit massage parlor in Greensboro exposed inaction by the city, impropriety from the GPD, ignorance from landlords, pressure on local media. The experts weigh in, and a survivor speaks.

Trigger warning: This article includes descriptions of sexual assault.

In a shopping center next to a financial advisor’s office. Tucked into a complex near the highway. In a strip mall across from a fast food chain.

All of these locations in Greensboro have been listed on a website that advertises sex services within massage parlors. And it’s been an ongoing problem for decades.

Recent investigations by TCB and others in the Greensboro community have unveiled a pattern of illicit massage parlors that have been operating within the city unchecked and in plain sight. According to the Network, an intelligence-driven counter-human trafficking organization, illicit massage parlors are establishments that put on the façade of a legitimate massage business in order to facilitate commercial sex services.

While human-trafficking experts point to the broader issues that led to the abuse, locals point to the city and law enforcement’s lackluster and, at times, problematic response to the problem.

On Nov. 6, 2023 community activist Ben Holder, who has been vocal about the issue for decades, confronted city council about an incident that took place a few months prior.

On Sept. 21, an undercover Greensboro police officer went into a massage parlor in Greensboro and had his penis touched by an employee. The next day the parlor was raided by law enforcement, who arrested two women — including the one who had interacted with the officer — in a raid led by the Forsyth County Drug Task Force.

A few weeks after the raid, Holder spoke at the Nov. 6 Greensboro City Council meeting to demand answers.

“[Y]ou don’t need to get naked and entrap these women anymore,” Holder said.

Interviews with experts in the human-trafficking industry point out the flaws in the officer’s approach while offering different tactics for shutting down illicit parlors and ensuring the safety of the women entrapped inside.

Reporting and community activism also revealed communications between members of the News & Record and city officials, including the police chief, in an apparent effort to control a story that a reporter was working on.

Now, months later, pushback from community members and questions from the media have prompted the Greensboro Police Department to change their directives and pursue new tactics for tamping down on the problem.

What is an illicit massage parlor?

While the popular idea of human or sex trafficking may look like something out of the 2008 film Taken, with young women being kidnapped to serve in shoddy dungeons, more often than not, modern sex trafficking hides in plain sight.

According to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that works to combat and prevent sex and labor trafficking in North America, illicit massage, health and beauty businesses are one of the most common forms of sex trafficking in the United States. In fact, according to the organization’s 2017 report on the typology of modern slavery, this category ranked as the second most-common form of sex trafficking in the country, behind escort services. Outdoor solicitation, or what people may commonly think of when they think of prostitution, ranked third.

Based on the 2017 report, these businesses “present a facade of legitimate spa services, concealing that their primary business is the sex and labor trafficking of women trapped in these businesses.”

The report also notes that while the businesses may appear to be single storefronts, that many are “controlled as part of larger networks” with one to three people owning several businesses at the same time. The organization estimates that there are at least 7,000 storefronts in the US and possibly more.

The industry as a whole, according to a 2017 study, could make as much as $3.8 billion a year with each parlor averaging about $465,000 in revenue yearly.

According to data from the Polaris Project, 47 percent of victims of illicit massage parlors are foreign nationals. Polaris reports that most of the victims in the businesses range in age from their mid-thirties to late fifties and come from China and South Korea. Survivors are often controlled through coercion, threats of shame and debt bondage with some victims forced to live at the places where they work.

Sabrina Thulander, the associate director for communications at Polaris, told TCB the organization’s hotline received more than 1,500 calls regarding incidents of trafficking in massage parlors from January 2020-August 2022. That’s likely around 2,400 victims, Thulander said.

“Illicit massage parlors are one of the avenues that we see sex and labor trafficking,” she told TCB. “It’s definitely a common one.”

According to Thulander, the number of calls regarding illicit parlors climbed steadily through 2019, then declined in 2020 and 2021, likely due to the pandemic. But she said she wouldn’t be surprised if they saw an increase for 2022 and 2023.

“It seems to be one of the most persistent venues,” she said.

The problem is multi-faceted. Not only do the women work in these parlors because they need money, oftentimes they are coerced into staying in these jobs because of immigration status and lack of English proficiency, according to Thulander.

“There are a number of vulnerabilities,” Thulander explained. “One of the top ones is migration status. If you’re a recent immigrant, you’re more likely to be trafficked.”

According to research by Chris Muller-Tabanera and Beisi Huang, who co-wrote a chapter titled, “Modern Day Comfort Stations: Human Trafficking in the US Illicit Massage Industry,” published in the book The Historical Roots of Human Trafficking in 2021, a majority of workers in the illicit massage industry come from mainland China. Others also come from Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. Many of the women lack economic opportunities or need to pay off large debts, including property loans, family medical expenses, business debt or travel debt. The researchers note that many of the women “report feeling difficult personal situations like spouses with alcoholism, domestic violence or divorce.”

photo of open signage
Photo by Prateek Katyal on Pexels.com

The chapter notes that most of the women from China are recruited in one of two ways. The first is directly from China, via full-service travel agencies offering visa assistance, flights and airport pickup upon arrival, with some of the agencies promising work authorization and jobs at Chinese businesses. To pay their way to the states, the women often borrow money from loansharks or even the travel agency itself.

The second way is when women already live in the US and find work via word-of-mouth or social media, sometimes being lured by fake recruitment ads on platforms like WeChat.

A 2019 study of more than 100 Chinese and Korean illicit massage workers reported that some women felt deceived or coerced into jobs that involved sex work while other chose the profession after having bad experiences in other low-laying jobs like restaurants and nail salons.

Susan Chung, the interim chair of the board of directors at the NC Coalition Against Human Trafficking, worked with survivors of illicit massage parlors for years. In 2021, she assisted in a raid that shut down locations in Sanford. 

According to Chung, the women she talked to came from New York — one of the biggest hubs for trafficking — to North Carolina to work.

“At the raid, one woman said to me, ‘I don’t even know what state I’m in,’” Chung recalled.

Chung said that the socioeconomic status of many of these women back in China forces them to seek drastic options.

“A lot of times in China, by the time you’re 50 years old, you’re forced to retire,” Chung said. “But if you’re in a village or in a lower socioeconomic status, you still need to make a living for your children or your family. That’s why they decided to come to America; they heard you can make money very quickly and that’s why the age is much older.”

Chung said that many of the women she’s interacted with were single moms or survivors of domestic violence. Some of the women knew they were going to have to engage in sex work as part of their job, but others didn’t. Even when they found out, a number of them chose to stay.

“Some of the women didn’t even know they were being trafficked,” Chung said.

The issue, Muller-Tabanera and Huang write, stems from the history of large-scale sexual exploitation of East Asian women starting as early as the 1900s. Wartime efforts by the Japanese government led to widespread “comfort stations” which acted as military brothels where women and girls were forced into prostitution. The same thread continued on as the Japanese empire aggressively colonized more of East Asia and exploited women in Korea, China, Taiwan and the Philippines. By the time WWII broke out, the idea of “comfort women” was almost commonplace and synonymous with many East Asian countries with the US military playing an outsized role.

The long history of the fetishization of Asian women came to a head in March 2021, when a mass shooter went on a killing spree in Atlanta, GA, targeting two spas and a massage parlor. Eight people were killed, six of them Asian women.

According to police investigations, the perpetrator had been a customer at two of the massage parlors and saw them as sources of sexual temptation, the Associated Press reported. All three of the targeted businesses had appeared on online sex websites and had been the target of prostitution arrests according to the AP.

Where are the illicit massage parlors in Greensboro?

While a majority of spa and massage businesses in the city are legitimate, it’s not that difficult to find ones that are operating illegally.

Quick searches on sex sites show advertisements stating, “Asian New Hot Girl” or “Best massage,” with pictures of naked or barely clothed Asian women.

Many of the ads allude to sexual services by using euphemisms like “something else you want” or “unique massage services,” while others explicitly advertise acts like manual stimulation and oral sex. Some go as far as advertising sexual positions.

The woman who was arrested by Greensboro police in September worked at an illicit massage parlor called Amazing Spa that was formerly open at 620 Guilford College Road. 

The formerly open Amazing Spa is now closed. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Since the September raid, the ad for Amazing Spa has been taken down from websites, but others have taken its place.

One such location continues to operate in plain sight as of the writing of this piece.

Off of the busy stretch of Battleground Avenue past Trader Joe’s and Wal-Mart, headed towards Summerfield, is a small shopping center that has been there for decades. Inside, an Edward Jones financial office, a nail salon and a beauty supply store have signs that face out towards the street. But one shop hangs a single illuminated open sign but no business title.

Outside, the shades are drawn to cover the windows while a single photo of some flowers and stones atop greenery cover the large panel window, a sign that the business relates to massage or spa services. Inside, a small front desk flanks the left side of the store while a few pieces of furniture fill the right. The location at 3920 Battleground Ave. has been listed on a sex service website for the past several weeks. The ad includes phrases like “New sexy masseuse” and “If you like Asian girls to massage you or something else you want..this may meet your requirements.”

Pictures of Asian women accompany the advertisement along with a phone number that has been connected to other illicit massage parlors in the Triad.

Upon entering the store, a single Asian woman in her fifties greeted TCB and said that they offered deep-tissue massages. But observations by TCB and a source show that the services they relayed to TCB may not be the extent of their business operations.

On Jan. 8, TCB witnessed one white man, around 60 years old, enter the shop and exit after about 30 minutes. When approached to ask about his reason for visiting the location, the man told TCB, “It’s none of your business.”

According to a source who has been monitoring the location, the open sign continues to stay on and a number of other male clients have gone in and out of the shop.

As of Jan. 22, the shop at 3920 Battleground Avenue was open to customers. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

A public records search shows that the entire shopping center at 3920 Battleground Ave. is owned by TND Investments LLC, which is operated by Anh and Thi Dao. The two also own Kathy Nails, which is located directly next to the massage parlor.

On Jan. 8 when TCB asked employees at Kathy Nails about the shop next door, the women inside told TCB to “ask them.”

As of Jan. 22, the massage parlor is still open and serving clients.

This bothers Ben Holder, who has been telling the city of various ways to shut these kinds of businesses down. One option is to shut down businesses that don’t have the proper paperwork.

According to NC law, all businesses that offer massages, as well as the masseuses themselves, are required to have a license to practice from the NC Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy. A quick search on board’s database shows that the 3920 Battleground Ave. location is not properly licensed. Additionally, the city’s code of ordinances has an entire section dedicated to massage businesses that outlines prohibition including the fact that employers can’t hire people who don’t have a state license and renters can’t lease out space to businesses that don’t have a state license. 

A public records request shows that 18 businesses are currently registered with the city as massage businesses. The 3920 Battleground Ave. location is not listed as having a city business permit. But one issue, which Holder has pointed out, is that the city has given business permits to businesses that don’t have the proper state licensing. 

One such example is Head 2 Feet Spa located at 1573 New Garden Road. While the city approved their business license, the location does not come up on the state’s massage license database. The owners listed on the business’s permit application do not come up in the database either. However, an order by the NC Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy from June 16, 2022 shows that as recently as November 2021, the business had been found to be “aiding and abetting illegal massage and bodywork.” The owner, PinHui Wang was formerly cited and fined in 2019 for running an illegal massage parlor in Winston-Salem called Relaxation Station.

Head 2 Feet remains open at 1573 New Garden Road in Greensboro.

Head 2 Feet Spa remains open in Greensboro despite not having a proper state license. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

One sex-services website currently lists about half a dozen massage parlors that claim to offer illicit services. However, at many of the locations listed, which TCB visited, it was unclear whether illegal sex trafficking was taking place. But that doesn’t matter, says Holder, who has been pushing for city officials to simply shut down businesses if they don’t have the proper licenses either at the state or city level.

“You know, I would just follow state law, the one that was meant to combat this problem,” he said.

Because law enforcement has been slow to act on this issue, Holder has taken it upon himself to reach out directly to leasing agents and landlords to inform them when it appears illegal massage parlors are operating out of their buildings.

In December, he reached out to Justin Conrad, a former Guilford County commissioner and the owner of multiple properties in Greensboro, including 2109 New Garden Road. According to Conrad, they were notified by Holder that an illicit massage parlor was trying to open up in his shopping center, something he realized after seeing an advertisement noting the address on one of the online sex websites. Conrad quickly reached out to Will Roach, the property manager for Roach Realty, who handles leasing for the building and shut the process down.

“It quickly became clear that massage wasn’t their business and it wasn’t operating legally,” Roach told TCB. “We worked quickly with our attorneys to notify them that they were in breach of their lease and we were able to get them out fairly quickly; they hadn’t even opened yet.”

When an illicit massage parlor tried to open at 2109 New Garden Road, the building owner and leasing agent quickly shut it down. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

This tactic is something that Holder has been calling his “landlord engagement campaign.”

“If there was a statewide landlord engagement, we wouldn’t have [these businesses],” Holder said.

Roach said that the illegal business was able to get past him initially because the location had legitimate massage businesses in the past.

“I get calls from all different kinds of businesses,” Roach says. “[Human trafficking] wasn’t on my mind; it hadn’t crossed my mind that it could have been part of a bigger prostitution ring. That’s been a big learning experience for me. We have to look beyond our past experiences and open ourselves up to the possibility that these folks aren’t doing what they’re saying.”

An easy way to combat that? A quick check to make sure businesses have their state licenses.

“The biggest thing was that they were not licensed to do massage,” Roach said. “That was a breach of their lease and it made it real easy to get them out.”

Conrad agrees.

“If you have the proper credentials it is a legitimate business. But if you don’t, it’s not a legitimate business,” he said. 

Roach said that from now on, he’ll dig deeper into applications and make sure businesses are operating legally.

“We have no tolerance for this sort of business and behavior and feel good about the fact that they were able to move so quickly,” Roach said. 

Now, after weeks of criticism from Holder, as well as questions from the broader community, including local media, the GPD is taking a page out of Holder’s book and changing its tactics.

How did the GPD handle illicit massage parlors and what are they doing in the future?

On Sept. 21, 2023, an undercover officer with the Greensboro Police Department went into Amazing Spa and engaged in a sex act with an employee there.

According to the arrest warrant, the employee grabbed the “detective’s penis with hand to promote stimulation” and rubbed her “crotch on the back of the detective’s head for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification and for money.”

The woman, a 59-year-old Chinese woman, was charged with one felony count of promoting prostitution and one misdemeanor count for prostitution. And this wasn’t the first time police officers had gone undercover at a massage parlor.

According to a search warrant from 2015, two different police officers went to an illicit massage parlor that was formerly located at 317 S. Westgate Drive and had massages performed on them. One officer set up a one-hour appointment in which the masseuse performed a “body to body, oiled massage, while only wearing a bikini bottom.” During the appointment, the masseuse solicited the officer for the purpose of prostitution “by offering her body to perform sexual contact.” The next day, a different officer went to the same location and during the appointment was “solicited for the purpose of prostitution by the female offering her body to perform sexual contact…”

In an interview with TCB, Police Chief John Thompson confirmed that it was common for police to go undercover at illicit massage parlors. But Thompson said that officers wouldn’t engage in full sex acts. Instead, they would go in and start a massage “in hopes of being able to solicit” something further.

“What could happen is, if an officer is getting a massage, he might ask, ‘Do you offer special services?’” Thompson said. “But it also may not be a verbal solicitation. If the officer is on the table, and [the masseuse] reaches out and grabs the officer’s genitals, that’s an initiation of a sex act. The policy is for the officer to immediately disengage because that has met the criminal threshold.”

And that’s the part that’s tricky, according to Thompson. Because police are trying to build a case to arrest someone for prostitution and they need a certain amount of evidence for the charges to stick in court, he said.

“Initiation made the strongest case for an individual for prostitution because you didn’t have to deal with ambiguous language,” Thompson said.

For example, an officer asking a masseuse if they offer “special massages” might not be enough because defendants could argue that a “special massage” was an extension of a regular, legitimate act.

Thompson said that he didn’t have a “second by second breakdown” or “all of the specifics” of what happened in the September case, but that the officer was never disciplined because he followed protocol. He said that the officer did not complete a sex act.

“If the officer allowed for an hour for additional initiation for the completion of an act, that would be an absolute violation of our policy and that officer would be investigated,” Thompson said.

The Greensboro Police Department headquarters (file photo)

But community activists like Holder, as well as local journalists, wonder about the ethics surrounding the GPD’s tactics of using an undercover officer to make arrests in the first place.

“That’s not best practice,” said Erin Albright, a human-trafficking expert who has done training for Department of Justice task forces. “That’s a tremendously outdated tactic. I would keep asking, ‘Why, why are they doing this? Why are we doing it this way?’”

Many of the experts that TCB spoke to for this piece felt similarly to Albright.

“I’m outraged to hear that local police are using these tactics to make arrests,”said Panida Rzonca, co-chair of the API Human Trafficking Task Force and the directing attorney for the Thai Community Development Center. “I’m flabbergasted that this is happening in this day and age; I’m appalled that police would expose themselves at all.”

Now, due to pushback from the community, Thompson said that they have changed the department’s directives around investigating sex crimes so that “no officers conducting undercover operations will intentionally touch the genital area of a suspect, or allow for their genital area to be touched by a suspect.”

“Should a suspect touch an investigator’s genital area, the investigator will immediately break physical contact and end the interaction,” the new protocol reads.

Formerly, the directives noted that reports regarding sex-crime investigations would “include all pertinent information including whether a suspect touched the investigative officer and what area of the body was touched,” which implies that touching would not be stopped by the officers.

One reason for the change, according to Thompson, is that the old directives put his detectives in a precarious position.

“We were asking something unreasonable from our detectives,” Thompson said. “When they’re trying to make a determination of Is this someone willingly engaging in prostitution or being trafficked? Should I initiate or not? It’s unreasonable to put detectives in that situation.”

Greensboro Police Chief John Thompson

Additionally, Thompson said that they don’t want to traumatize the women who may be victims of sex trafficking.

And that’s something that advocates repeated to TCB time and time again in interviews.

Both law enforcement and the greater community needs to understand that these women are victims of complicated situations, Rzonca said.

Rzonca points to victim-centered and trauma-informed practices in which law enforcement works with organizations that have a deeper understanding of how sex trafficking works.

“They know that they don’t have trust from the community, including with the victims,” Rzonca said. “They don’t understand the language and the culture.”

That’s one of the reasons why Susan Chung with the NC Coalition Against Human Trafficking was tapped to be a part of the raids that took place in 2021 and 2022. She speaks Mandarin and could communicate with the women who were involved. But that doesn’t always mean that the women accept the help or cooperate with law enforcement to arrest the owners or higher-ups connected to the business.

“The woman didn’t want to tell me [who the bad guys were],” Chung said. “They said it was too scary and that they didn’t want retaliation. One of the woman said, ‘I want to tell you but I’d rather go to jail.’”

According to Thompson, the police department worked with the Bridge International, an advocacy organization, in 2023 during a police raid regarding human trafficking. And it’s something that he wants to do more of.

“They worked with the individuals to get them out of that environment to get them back home to family,” Thompson said.

But police shouldn’t be arresting the women in the first place, said Albright. 

“Jurisdictions that are naive to trafficking and ill-informed in trafficking are still doing this raid-and-rescue tactic,” Albright said.

According to a public records request, the GPD has made 54 prostitution-related charges in the last five years from 2018-23. Multiple charges could be affiliated with a single person. The public records request that outlined the prostitution charges did not include the names of those charged despite TCB’s request for the names. In at least three of the incident reports, an officer wrote that “there was sufficient probable cause” to charge people with prostitution. The GPD did not respond to TCB’s requests asking what the probable cause was for each case.

Instead, law enforcement should look at trafficking in general from a worker’s rights perspective, said Albright. 

“It means looking at it from the perspective of the alleged victims and how they can best support and extract them in a way that is the least traumatizing as possible,” Albright said. “You want to make people safe and begin building trust.”

Sabrina Thulander with Polaris Project agreed on the need to shift the way everyone from law enforcement to community members to nonprofit organizations thinks about how to help survivors.

“The top thing we’re working towards is creating a survivor-centered response to trafficking, which is something that has been long overlooked and neglected by the anti-trafficking movement and everyone else involved,” Thulander said. “It sounds so simple. Asking survivors, ‘What do you need?’ rather than, ‘This is the service that you get.’ Working with them as partners in their recovery process rather than dictating what is available for them.”

In addition to changing the directives when it comes to how undercover police operate in sex crime investigations, Thompson said that they would be looking into formalizing a process that works to identify businesses that are operating in the city without proper licenses, much like Holder has been advocating for.

Like Holder’s landlord-engagement campaign, police will soon have a process in which officers will reach out directly to property owners and landlords to alert them when a business without proper paperwork tries to rent space in their buildings. Thompson is also going to reach out to city officials to try and strengthen the city’s current ordinance — which is a civil one that punishes wrongdoers via fines — into a criminal ordinance.

Community activist Ben Holder, who has been investigating illicit massage parlors in the city for decades, speaks at a Nov. 6 city council meeting. (screenshot)

According to the Network, a “combination of strong pre-emptive processes and sustained, impactful enforcement has met with success in both large and small cities” when it comes to illegal massage parlors.

Some of the practices include unannounced visits from city inspectors to businesses, city officials closing businesses “on the spot” for violations like unlicensed employees giving massages, sexual activity and evidence of women living on premises. City ordinances can require businesses to notify the city of personnel changes.

The 2021 fact sheet by the Network also notes how strong preventative measures like having a rigorous application process that checks applicants’ backgrounds and certifies their license can prevent illegal businesses from opening in the first place. For example, in 2016, Johnston, Iowa implemented an ordinance requiring an application process that details the credentials and backgrounds of all employees who would be working at the location, including massage license numbers issued by the state. A follow-up in-person interview was then required. According to the fact sheet, “the Network could find no [illicit massage businesses] listed on sex buyer review sites for Johnston since 2016.”

Thompson said that he hopes these changes curb the problem, but he stays realistic about the issues surrounding the illicit massage industry as a whole.

“I think it’s always there; it’s always occurring somewhere,” he said. “It changes through method and operation. Before massage parlors it was street-level prostitution. Some streets even now you can go and see individuals walking the streets. And it’s changed to other avenues. We try to adopt our methods to combat those criminal behaviors.”

Why did the city of Greensboro and the police department meet with the News & Record?

On Jan. 17, the N&R published a story covering the issue of illicit massage parlors in Greensboro. The story covered the September raid and asked questions about the police department’s handling of the situation. Omitted from the piece was the fact that, weeks prior to the publication of the story, the reporter, his editor and several members of the city, as well as the police chief, met to talk about it.

Before TCB started reporting on this story, N&R reporter Connor McNeely was making public records requests, sending emails to city officials and visiting massage parlors locations for his story. But as McNeely sent more and more emails regarding the police department’s handling of the September 2023 raid, city officials started to talk amongst themselves.

Public records requests by both McNeely and Holder show dozens of emails between McNeely’s supervisor, Executive Editor Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, and city officials like Police Chief Thompson, City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba, the city’s Communications and Marketing Director Carla Banks as well as communications managers for the Greensboro Police Department Patrick DeSota and Josie Cambareri. 

The pages of documents outlining the emails start in late October, prompted by McNeely’s requests to the city asking about the police department’s directives and tactics leading up to the raid on Amazing Spa.

On Oct. 31, Carla Banks emails Dimon Kendrick-Holmes to tell him about the “persistent emails or phone calls” from McNeely to the city. Banks then asks Kendrick-Holmes to talk to McNeely “about the sensitivity of these types of cases and his misinterpretation of the law.”

“Connor needs to understand how the outcome of months of undercover work can be jeopardized by premature reporting without proper context and complete facts,” Banks writes.

Per the public records request, Banks appears to be referencing an email in which McNeely asks Josie Cambareri why the police officer performed the sexual act rather than stopping at an attempt.

“I also welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss how we can foster a positive working relationship moving forward,” Banks writes.

In follow-up emails, Kendrick-Holmes responds that he would be happy to meet with Banks in person to “figure out how [they] can work together moving forward.” 

A meeting between Kendrick-Holmes, Assistant City Managers Chris Wilson and Trey Davis, Josie Cambareri and Patrick DeSota of the GPD, City Manager Trey Davis and Police Chief Thompson is proposed for Nov. 7 at the city offices building downtown. On the evening of Nov. 8, Banks sends a follow-up email to Kendrick-Holmes with the other members copied.

“Thank you for taking the time to meet with our team this week. It was a pleasure to meet you!” Banks writes. “I speak for the group when I say it was a productive conversation and we appreciate your genuine interest in our concerns. Additionally, I appreciate your commitment to speak with Connor about the tone of his emails and implications of sharing our responses with others. We are looking forward to turning the page in an effort to establish goodwill relations with Connor and your other reporters.”

Banks also alludes to an “informal meet-and-greet” between the city and the N&R in the future.

About half an hour later, Kendrick-Holmes responds.

“Thanks to you all for taking the time to sit down together yesterday. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that you reached out to me immediately when you had concerns and were willing to get the group together to talk through it,” Kendrick-Holmes writes. “Our newsroom staff and I are eager to open the lines of communication between us and build a solid working relationship with the police department and the city.”

In the weeks that followed, emails show that McNeely continued working on the story, sending emails to the police chief asking questions about the department’s tactics. Thompson reached back out to Kendrick-Holmes, telling him that “it hard for [him] to believe that Connor is making any good faith efforts.”

To that, Kendrick-Holmes responds to Thompson by stating that he hadn’t told McNeely about the meeting and that “this will be dealt with.”

Later emails sent in December show Kendrick-Holmes and Thompson planning a meeting between themselves and McNeely.

According to Chief Thompson, members of the GPD reached out to McNeely and Kendrick-Holmes to talk about McNeely’s story because they felt like the reporter had “made some assumption that we send officers into massage parlors to have sex to make a case” and that the arrest warrant was “misleading.”

After emails between the N&R and city officials were published online, community members became alarmed that the city was trying to kill McNeely’s story. That wasn’t the case, Thompson asserts.

“We were trying to educate the News & Record on what we can release,” Thompson said. “There’s what I cannot release legally, what I have to release and then there’s this huge middle ground that I can release that’s not in either of those buckets.”

This isn’t the first time that Thompson has sat down with media outlets to clear up details of certain cases, he said.

“We’ve met with FOX 8, we’ve done it with WFMY,” he said. “We want them to know that this can be a positive relationship…. We’re not telling you what to write.”

Thompson, who has been police chief since December 2022, told TCB that he believes the police department has been extremely open with the media.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever turned down an interview with the media,” Thompson said.

And despite the media frenzy around the September raid, Thompson said he’s glad there was attention focused on it from the community because it brought about changes within the department.

“I think we’re better for it,” he said.

TCB did not receive a response from city officials including city councilmembers, the mayor and the city manager for this story. When TCB reached out to Kendrick-Holmes, he pointed to the N&R’s story in lieu of a comment. McNeely also declined to comment. 

‘It’s like having a new life’

One survivor whom TCB talked to on the condition of anonymity said that she came to the United States from Thailand around seven years ago. She heard about massage as a way to make money for her and her son from their neighbor and got in contact with employers — whom she didn’t realize were traffickers at the time — to bring her to the United States. Her first stop was Chicago.

When she landed in the city, she was told that she would need to pay the traffickers back for the plane ticket and for her visa. Later, the traffickers added a $30,000 expense for housing and for finding her a job on top of the other payments.

At first, she was told that the work involved massages, but she quickly realized after she arrived that the traffickers hadn’t been honest with her. They took her to an apartment where she lived with multiple other women who ranged in age from their twenties to their forties. They waited all day and stayed in the apartment where they would serve customers who would come at all hours during the day, the survivor said. 

While she was shocked and demeaned by the work, she couldn’t leave because the traffickers had her passport, she said. 

An abandoned house located at 3527 Fiesta Drive once served as an illicit massage parlor in Greensboro. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

For every half hour she worked, she made $160 — $60 was taken by the traffickers for housing while $100 was taken to pay down her debt. She barely made any extra for herself. For food, the traffickers took the women to the grocery store every two weeks but they realized that the food costs were taken out of their pay, too. Their debts increased more and more each day.

Still, she was able to send some money back to Thailand where her son remained. But she still owed more than $20,000.

A few weeks later, she ran away with another woman who was working in the apartment.

Over the next few months, the survivor hopped from one trafficking outlet to another with the help of other women that she knew. At one point, she worked at a row of massage parlors in Dallas where she lived with the other women working there. The parlors were open 24 hours a day with about 20-30 women inside.

At times, customers were rough with the women, sometimes forcing themselves onto them, or even robbing them.

“Sometimes there are rapes happening,” she said with Rzonca translating.

Other times, she said police would come and try to solicit them for sex work.

“It’s like every other day the police are customers,” she said.

In 2016, she was arrested for the first time in Los Angeles at a hotel for sex work. She got a citation and had to appear in court and completed some community service. Later that year, she got arrested again by the FBI and sent to immigration detention for deportation. That’s when she got connected to Panida Rzonca with the Thai Community Development Center.

“That’s when Thai CDC found her, interviewed her and identified her as a victim of human trafficking,” Rzonca explained.

Now, years after the case and having gotten her green card, the survivor said that she’s been given a “second life.” She works at the Thai Community Development Center where she helps other women who were coerced to work in the illicit massage industry and tries to spread awareness about what’s going on.

“My life has gotten better,” she told TCB. “I have more of a life; back then, I didn’t know anybody or have anybody to socialize with. It feels good that people don’t know about my past. It feels like I got a fresh start; it’s like having a new life.”

Her son was brought to the US shortly after she connected with the organization.

Still, the survivor can’t help but think about the women who are still caught in the industry, she said. She understands that, like her, many women have made the decision to stay because of their own circumstances.

“I know a lot of friends who are still working in the sex industry,” she said. “And sometimes you have to give them that space because it’s their chosen job and allow them to make those choices.”

As part of their work to become more survivor-centered, Sabrina Thulander with the Polaris Project would like to see more opportunities for survivors to clear their criminal records.

“If you have a charge like prostitution, it makes life after trafficking inexplicably hard,” Thulander said. “If you think about what it’s like to have a criminal charge in general, it’s difficult to get a job, difficult to get housing, difficult to go back to school and get a degree. All of these things that we think of as fundamental to building a life become nearly impossible; it hinders [survivors’] ability to heal and recover.”

According to the Polaris Project, NC gets a C for the ease in which survivors can clear their records. Thulander said that a C is “middle of the road,” especially when considering that only three states got an A: Georgia, New York and New Hampshire.

In NC, the law allows trafficking survivors to clear their criminal record of non-prosecuted cases, arrests, adjudications, convictions as well as any information related to an arrest and incident reports. But there are several aspects that need to be improved, according to the report. Part of that includes which offenses are eligible for criminal record relief. Currently, relief only applies to non-violent offenses but the range of offenses “is much broader” Polaris writes.

“If you are being trafficked and your trafficker makes you steal or sell drugs, there are some states that wouldn’t allow those to be cleared,” Thulander explained. “A broad scope of offenses covered would get you a higher mark.”

Thulander told TCB about one survivor who had about 40 charges to her name. She had to clear each of the charges individually rather than in bulk; it took her seven years.

The goal, according to many advocates, is about making sure survivors are empowered, treating them like people who need help, not criminals.

“I’ll tell you why we have this problem,” Holder told TCB. “It’s because there’s this idea that old women who don’t speak English don’t count. If we were going to be serious about it, we would welcome these women to our community.”

Thulander agrees.

“We need to let them be the spokespeople for their own cause,” Thulander said. “There’s a trend in anti-trafficking organizations for us to want to speak on their behalf but they have their own voices and they can use them. That’s what we’re trying to promote. They’re the only ones that know what it’s like to be trafficked; they’re the experts.”

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733. Learn more at polarisproject.org/national-human-trafficking-hotline.

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