When Missouri police raided several Springfield massage parlors in 2017, as Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) tells it, it was a righteous rescue mission led by a promising young attorney general who would later go on to become a rising Republican star in the U.S. Senate.
Hawley's self-aggrandizing account goes like this: After getting wind of a potential sex trafficking ring at Asian massage parlors all around Greene County and the city of Springfield, Hawley's office helped state and county police free "female victims" from being trapped in massage parlors and "forced into sex work," while "the participants in the ring were charged."
In fact, Hawley said at the time, "some evidence collected by Highway Patrol, leading up to these raids, suggested that there are potentially ties to Asian organized crime."
While this tale nicely reinforces Hawley's long-standing preoccupations with public morality and Chinese hegemony, the evidence doesn't back up his version of events. The real story is one about police and prosecutor overreach at the expense of potentially vulnerable immigrants, followed by grandstanding and falsehoods from a senator intent on rewriting his own history.
Three years after the initial raids, Missouri has managed to elicit six guilty pleas to misdemeanor offenses against the state's massage licensing law. A tangentially related investigation in Louisiana yielded a single guilty plea to labor trafficking, with zero evidence of coerced sex or threats of violence, along with one plea to money laundering and one to "prohibited sexual conduct" at a massage parlor.
Meanwhile, several small businesses have had to spend years fighting a duplicative, ongoing civil court order brought by Hawley—it says these businesses and their owners cannot engage in or permit prostitution, which is already illegal under Missouri law—after cops followed, stopped, and questioned their customers, a few of whom said they had been touched sexually by masseuses. Far from rescuing helpless victims, the raids Hawley bragged about have most likely put women at greater risk.
Hawley's massage business raids are a small part of a much larger story about how Asian spas became the next big front in the battle against alleged sex trafficking.
In reporting that story, I found a legal and political battle that's too often focused on consensual sex work or serving as a pretense for police surveillance, vice stings, hand jobs for Homeland Security agents, and harassing particular communities. In Hawley's case, a Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) and Springfield Police Department investigation into prostitution at Asian massage parlors led to raids on 13 businesses and five homes in Greene County in July 2017, largely based on unfounded associations between them and the fact that they all advertised on the now-seized classified ad site Backpage.
Hawley—then the attorney general of Missouri—spoke at a press conference live from the parking lot of one of the raided businesses, earning him positive headlines and TV news coverage. To sex traffickers attempting to do business in his state, he said, "We will find you out, we will hunt you down, and we will prosecute you."
At the time, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, whose seat Hawley would soon compete for and win, had made stopping "sex trafficking" and prostitution her signature issue, which may explain part of Hawley's enthusiasm to come across as tough on these things. But as McCaskill pointed out during an October 2018 debate, no felony charges had resulted from the massage parlor stings more than a year after Hawley's highly publicized raids.
By that point, the most significant actions Hawley's office had taken were seizing assets, prosecuting a few misdemeanor violations of occupational licensing laws, and netting a civil court order saying five businesses shouldn't allow prostitution—something already forbidden under Missouri law.
Even after Hawley's office appeared in civil court and filed motions for months to fight for extensions of the redundant anti-prostitution order, the only progress prosecutors have since made in the still-ongoing civil case is to repeatedly wait until it's been almost dismissed for lack of state action and then tell the court they need more time.
At the start of June, I mentioned this case on Twitter—prompting Hawley to accuse me of "praising human traffickers" and offering a misleading story about his supposed victory against an Asian trafficking ring.
In a series of June 6 tweets, the senator insisted that "a dozen women in sex slavery" had been saved and that their captors had been charged after he "took on an Asian trafficking ring." Yet Hawley either would not or could not produce any concrete evidence or court documents to back up this implausible assertion, simply linking to a CNN video that ran at the time of the initial raids.
Why implausible? First, because checking criminal court records for the names of businesses and individuals cited by authorities as being involved in the alleged trafficking scheme yielded nothing but the aforementioned licensing violations. Ultimately, five Asian women, ranging in age from early 30s to late 40s, and one white man in his late 50s, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor offenses against Missouri massage licensing law. Each paid a $750 to $1,000 fine, according to Missouri court records.
Backing up the apparent lack of court records is the fact that the authorities—the same ones that had so actively courted media attention at the start of the bust—went silent about it. There was no announcement that sex traffickers had been charged or brought to justice in any way. An initial press release about the bust is now gone from the Greene County prosecutor's news archive.
All Hawley had to do to prove he's not making stuff up was point to public court records or any official documentation showing charges filed against the alleged traffickers and an effort to prosecute those cases. Instead, Hawley tweeted about the emotional impact the raid had on him, the color of a suitcase he saw in one massage business (pink), and how none of the women spoke English.
Luckily, we don't have to rely on Hawley for information. "No felony charges were filed in Greene County Missouri" as part of this case, Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson told me in a June 9 email.
"The investigation in Springfield you are referencing was part of a broader effort involving associated investigations and search warrants in Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana," Patterson wrote.
He added that "charges were able to be filed in Louisiana" and points to a July 21, 2017, story from local news outlet KSLA on two arrests made there. It said one man and one woman associated with Shreveport-based Palm Massage were being charged with two counts apiece of human trafficking.
At first glance, the Louisiana case might seem to justify the 13 raided businesses Hawley presided over and his claims about them. But only one of those 13 Missouri businesses was associated with the Louisiana pair who later pleaded guilty, and aside from the raid no action against that business was ever taken by Hawley or his predecessor.
Meanwhile, it was Louisiana state police who made the two arrests based on their own investigations in Shreveport and Bossier City. Hawley's team appears to have surveilled more than a dozen unrelated Asian massage businesses (and their customers) in a neighboring state for years, raided them, seized their assets, and arrested their staff with no ultimate justification other than licensing violations.
A Human Trafficking Den Turns Out To Be a Licensed Business Where Masseuses Work Long Hours
Meanwhile, the pair at the center of the Louisiana case are about as far as you can get from the image of hardened international crime lords and sex slavers invoked by Hawley's account, while still—perhaps—technically violating trafficking laws.
"One of the beautiful things about the statute in Louisiana is that it encompasses a lot of different types of behaviors," Caddo Parish Assistant District Attorney Mekisha Creal said in discussing the case with radio host Robert J. Wright back in 2018. "It's not just the snatch-and-grab, or what we would think about when we watch modern TV. It's the facilitation, the providing of transportation, it's the providing of lodging, and access, and things of that nature. Our human trafficking statute is very, very broad."
Palm Massage was run by then-34-year-old Linan Tian—a Chinese immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 2010—and his wife, Bing Bing Li. Li was 30 years old at the time, a legal immigrant, and a licensed masseuse in several states.
Neither had a criminal record. After opening a massage business in Springfield, Missouri (and, whether they recognized it or not, having their business surveilled for years by police there), they moved to Louisiana and opened two more (Palm Massage in Shreveport and Best Massage in Bossier City) and were in the process of opening one in Alabama. These businesses were licensed and insured in their respective states, paid taxes, and filed 1099 tax forms for workers, who were employed as independent contractors.
The pair was arrested and jailed in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, on July 20, 2017, after Louisiana State Police (LSP) raided Palm Massage in Shreveport. An LSP press release from July 21, 2017, notes that "detectives seized over $17,000 and three vehicles as part of the investigation" and were assisted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office, Bossier and Shreveport city cops, and the Louisiana State Fire Marshal.
Li and Tian initially pleaded not guilty. Tian was read his Miranda Rights with the aid of a translation app. (Police note that they had to explain to him what the English words "force," "criminal activity," and "labor trafficking" meant.) Li's lawyer also told the court she was interrogated under pressure without really understanding what was going on.
"Li was detained for several hours at the department after she was arrested" and "given no food or water, nor…allowed access to the bathroom," states a motion to suppress her initial interview. "Li is not proficient in the English language" and not "familiar with the legal system of this country," and she "did not have access to an interpreter who was capable of providing a translation to Li after the completion of each sentence," meaning "investigators did not obtain a sufficient indication from Li that she was…consenting to the interrogation" and she didn't "effect a free and voluntary waiver of her rights."
Li and Tian's business and personal assets were seized. Unable to afford bail—Li's was set at $300,000—they were stuck in jail as their case wore on.
At first, Li and Tian were each charged with two counts of human trafficking, as police suggested they may have brought women to the U.S. to force them into prostitution. Later, prosecutors would amend this only to argue that they had coerced women here into non-sexual labor.
Eventually, Tian pleaded to one count of the labor portion of the state's human trafficking statute and Li pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering.
By the time they changed their pleas to guilty on July 30, 2018, they had already been locked up for more than a year, despite not having been convicted. Had they continued to fight the charges, they would have faced months more jail time until the scheduled trial and then risked being "imprisoned at hard labor" until mid-2038 if convicted.
In accepting the plea deal, Li became a free woman, having already served more than the six months (with credit for time served) to which she was sentenced. Tian got a sentence of 18 months with credit for time served, meaning he only had about six more months to go. We don't know whether Li and Tian are actually guilty, but it's not hard to see why even two innocent people might accept those terms, as innocent people often do.
Meanwhile, there's no evidence or implication that Li and Tian had coerced women into sexual slavery. A crime lab analysis of evidence taken from Li and Tian's Shreveport business (including used paper towels, tissue, and cloths scavenged from its trash) found "no indication of semen," according to the lab report.
No employees said they were forced or coerced into sex acts or encouraged by their bosses to do so, according to Lousiana State Police's account of interviews with four staffers. None alleged that they had come to work for Tian and Li against their will, that their passports had been confiscated, that they were prevented from quitting, or that they were working to satisfy some sort of debt. All said they were paid—50 percent of the price of a massage, plus 100 percent of any tips. None elected to press charges.
"Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery—there's no ifs, ands, or buts about that," said Creal when asked in a 2018 radio interview whether the workers in this case were "sex slaves" or independent workers. But what the workers in this case "were doing is a little bit harder to explain."
There seems to be little merit to the state's suggestions that Li and Tian lured women from China, arranged for their immigration, or plucked them up fresh off the plane. One of their Louisiana employees was a native-born U.S. citizen. The other three, all Chinese citizens, were in the country legally and had been here long enough to obtain state massage certifications and driver's licenses. Three of the four said they had responded to a help wanted ad placed by BingBing Li on WeChat—ads that (according to police) stressed that they were looking for people for "regular massage."
No Justice Served
The strongest evidence that some sexual activity may have taken place in the Louisiana massage parlors run by Tian and Li comes in the form of vague allegations made by undercover detectives.
Tian's mom, then-62-year-old WenJuan Li, was accused by Heath Balkom—a member of the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office who was assigned to an FBI task force related to human trafficking—of engaging in vaguely sexual activity, following a June 2, 2017, sting that was part of an unrelated operation. "Balkom advised that during the massage, WenJuan exposed his penis and anus" and "repeatedly bumped across his penis in efforts to sexually arouse him," according to an affidavit for the arrest of Tian, which also says that his mother faced pending charges for prohibited sexual conduct at a massage business. However, there is no record that she was ever formally charged.
An affidavit from Louisiana State Police Master Trooper Heather Owens mentions LSP later sending two undercover detectives to Best Massage in Bossier City, where both received regular massages during which "Asian females exposed the anus and genitals of the undercover agents [and] also touched both agents' genitals."
The two masseuses, who went by "Coco" and "Summer"—and are the same ones police describe as victims elsewhere—were interviewed afterward and told they would be charged with prohibited sexual conduct at a massage parlor. Court records for the county suggest only Summer, who told investigators "that she was allowed to come and go as she wanted to and take days off," was ultimately charged.
Coco "was confronted by the undercover police officer" and "reluctantly admitted to the violations," states Owens. However, after this, she told detectives that though she "had her own vehicle…she did not feel as though she could leave if she wanted to. She felt like she had to work there because she lived with Tian and Li."
Ultimately, the most serious claims about Tian and Li are that they wanted the women they hired to work long shifts with few or no days off. Two of the workers allegedly told police this and indicated that they complied because refusing to work these long hours would get them fired.
Kevin Nguyen, a friend and translator for one of the masseuses who went by "Ala," told police that he "tried to explain to her that her boss could not force her to work that many hours," according to Owens' write-up of the interview. But Nguyen said "Chinese women only make an average of $8.00/day in China. Therefore, she was too scared to jeopardize her job which would stop her from being able to send any money back home to her toddler son and husband." Tian told police of the massage staff: "They just work here, and if they're not happy, they just go."
If the worst of what's in police reports about him and his wife is true, we're looking at evidence of state labor law violations, not an organized crime syndicate's human smuggling and sex slavery ring.
Mistreating employees is still wrong. But the official allegations from police fall far short of having "enticed [women] from China" (as an Associated Press article claimed, citing the Caddo Parish District Attorney's Office), "forcing women to perform sexual acts" (as a local ABC affiliate stated), or being part of "a trafficking ring" that may stretch "to east Asia," as Hawley put it. And authorities' treatment of alleged victims makes it hard to argue that anyone was helped.
Louisiana seized thousands of dollars, cars, phones, and other possessions from workers at Palm Massage and Best Massage, keeping much of it. ("We did not seize the money that was in their purses," Owens' report notes.) They also temporarily held on to their driver's licenses, passports, massage licenses, and immigration documents such as "asylum documentation," according to a state police log.
Coco, Summer, Ala, and YoYo—the four employees police talked to—"all have at least 720 hours of training and are licensed in several other states," wrote lawyer A.M. Stroud III, who served as one of Tian and Li's court-appointed attorneys, in a bond reduction motion. "These are professionals and do not engage in criminal activity. Though characterized as 'victims,' the state seized their assets rendering them completely indigent and without funds to live."
If authorities really do believe these workers were "victims," it's hard to imagine how either a criminal record or being left without a job, funds, identification, or a means of transportation made their situations better. If anything, it could make them more vulnerable to exploitation.
Fighting for Assets, Not Victims
Asset forfeiture features into all of these investigations. From Tian and Li, Louisiana cops, prosecutors, and courts got to keep a 2014 Jeep Compass and a 2013 Audi Coupe (cars they had previously installed trackers on and analyzed any time the vehicles stopped for more than two minutes), along with "several thousand dollars in cash" and "cell phones, computers and tablets," announced a press release from the Caddo Parish District Attorney's Office.
From WenJuan Li, they kept $36,390.
From Summer, police seized $12,567 and an iPhone; from YoYo, $5,030 plus a laptop, an iPhone, and an iPad. From someone police call "Minmin" (and do not mention again), $2,307 was taken.
None of the money was returned, in part because police attempted to return some of the funds by sending notice to addresses where they no longer lived and placing notices in a local newspaper. When the forfeited money went unclaimed, police and prosecutors got to keep it.
Meanwhile, in Missouri, the state seized more than $130,000 from raided businesses, according to a Springfield News-Leader review of court filings. Authorities also took cellphones and other electronics from these businesses.
After seizing assets in early August 2017, it took the state until September 2019 to dismiss claims on the assets of two defendants, Daquiong Wang—who was initially charged with unlicensed massage, though this was dismissed—and Yanmei Wang, despite the fact that neither was convicted of any crime. And both Wangs—along with the nine other individuals and five businesses—are still fighting prosecutors on the civil petition filed by Hawley and his team back in 2017.
Since last summer, the case has repeatedly been up for dismissal due to lack of prosecutor action. But Missouri authorities have dragged out the process, often waiting until the last minute to do so. The latest round started in May, when the court informed Missouri prosecutors that the case would be dismissed on June 17 if they didn't act. On June 10—a day after Patterson responded to my email about the lack of local results in this case—the state's assistant attorney general swooped in and asked for the case to be removed from the dismissal docket and scheduled for a bench trial.
That trial is now scheduled for July 30.
Six years after the Missouri investigation initially started and three years after Hawley's raids, the state is still dragging people and businesses to court over it, with little at stake but a symbolic order and perhaps some more money for the state.
"I think this was all about headlines for these guys and they had very little in the way of evidence," a lawyer involved with the case told the News-Leader on condition of anonymity.
A Boost for Political Careers, but Not Victims
According to Missouri and Louisiana police, the feds—who have increasingly turned alleged anti-sex-trafficking efforts toward Asian spas—were already looking into and conducting surveillance at massage businesses in these states when local police stepped in.
In 2016, the FBI conducted secret video surveillance at spas in Joplin, Missouri, near Springfield, and federal agents raided these businesses in January 2017, according to Missouri State Highway Patrol Sergeant Dan Nash's application and affidavit for a search warrant for the state raids. No federal charges appear to have been filed against anyone from these businesses.
On May 17, 2017, the FBI raided several Asian massage businesses in Springfield. "These massage parlors also had IP cameras that transmitted the surveillance cameras to a location off site," Nash notes.
That sort of secret surveillance of massage rooms is a serious invasion of customer and worker privacy, and it generally means capturing perfectly innocent customers undressing and semi-nude. In Florida, where covert cameras were installed at the massage parlor where Patriots owner Robert Kraft visited, the surveillance has spawned lawsuits from regular massage customers, employees, and men arrested for alleged solicitation of sex acts.
In addition to the federal surveillance—which does not seem to have yielded any charges—Missouri police "carried out hundreds of hours of surveillance of dozens of massage parlors located in Greene County," write Hawley and Patterson in their civil petition. They also tailed customers exiting these businesses and then interrogated them about what kind of massages they had received.
Overall, the operation illustrates an all-too-common problem with supposed "sex trafficking" busts. In many cases, an obsession with high-profile crimes of a sexual nature and daring rescues obscures more mundane but real forms of exploitation and precludes using less dramatic solutions to remedy them.
Instead of sending undercover cops to get their anuses rubbed by suspected victims, couldn't we make sure massage business employees know their rights as workers, understand local licensing laws, and can actually access civil or criminal remedies against anyone who might be harming them?
But, no—rather than establishing trust and becoming their allies against exploitative employers or "traffickers," police, politicians, and prosecutors treat potential victims like criminals, and make punishing immigrant workers for petty infractions the top priority. They seek secret surveillance powers as a first-order effort. Or send in Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in to solicit sex acts. They treat victims and workers alike as props to invoke in press conferences and Twitter arguments.
What became of the four employees interrogated by Louisiana cops? The two victims mentioned in court motions by Missouri police? The alleged dozen-plus women that Hawley claims to have saved? No one will say.
Will they be able to stay in the U.S. legally? In trouble with immigration authorities? How did they get here? Where did they go? Why wouldn't they testify? No one will ever say.
How, with a dozen freed victims of "sex slavery" as evidence, was Hawley's office unable to make a case against anyone enslaving them? And what's to stop those responsible from doing it again?
We don't know exactly what was going on at the Springfield businesses that Hawley had raided. But this operation was a failure especially if there were all the victims that Hawley claims.
Victims that only police give voice to are another frequent feature of alleged sex trafficking busts involving Asian immigrants. Damsels in distress are used to justify invasive and expensive policing that produces little result but charges for consensual adult prostitution or unlicensed massage.
For understandable reasons, the largely female immigrant population targeted by this daunting mix of federal immigration agents, FBI task forces, and state and county cops don't tend to speak up about it. And officials on both the right and the left—including Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) during her time as a "progressive prosecutor" in San Francisco—have capitalized on this to turn ugly police tactics into good public relations moves.
In Congress, Hawley has positioned himself as a Trumpian populist ringleader for a new sort of moral majority. But instead of seeing sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll as the gateways to damnation, it is focused on technology, algorithms, search engines, and social media companies. This manifests in a tendency to sponsor outlandish legislation that gets attention but goes nowhere, to spread misinformation that fits his crusade against a caricatured Silicon Valley elite, and to capitalize on cable news and Twitter to misrepresent laws surrounding free speech, big technology companies, and a slew of related issues that appeal to the Republican zeitgeist in the era of President Donald Trump.
These issues may appear a long way from Midwestern massage parlors and Chinese crime rings. But both his current crusade against Big Tech and the massage parlor investigation suggest in Hawley a serious disregard for civil liberties and a willingness to tell self-aggrandizing stories even when they don't match up with official records and documented facts.
Prosecutors and politicians like Hawley get away with misrepresenting sex trafficking busts and their role in them because they know most people don't have the time or inclination to follow up beyond initial headlines. But in this case, I did. And Hawley is no hero here.