MSNBC Undercover: Sex Slaves in America premiered Monday, December 3 at 11 PM ET/PT.
It's a story that begins in the ruins of the shattered Soviet empire.
Sophia: I saw 10 girls. They just pushed me into this room and closed the door. They made all of us take our clothes off and took us out naked.
A tragic but all too familiar tale. Young women in eastern Europe chasing dreams of a better life. But lured instead into sexual slavery.
Sophia: These half-drunk men are examining me, and I realize my life depends on them.
Enticed by fake ads and phony employment agencies, with slick brokers promising good jobs with decent salaries.
Man on hidden camera: Salary starts from $200 a month.
A single mother we'll call Sophia left her son in Ukraine for a housekeeping job in the Czech Republic. Her enslavement was immediate.
Sophia: I never left this building after I got there. I was locked in one room the whole time, then I'd go to the bar. Then one client would pick me up, and I'd have to service him. And then I'd go back to the bar and then to the room.
Sophia says she was forced to have sex with up to 11 men a day. Her friend Natasha was sent to a neighboring brothel, owned by the village police chief.
Natasha: The brothel is on the highway, there were nine of us. We had to dance half naked in the window all the time. If we sat down, we would get fined. It's impossible to run away. There is nothing except highways and brothels. There are 25 brothels in this tiny village. There are no taxis, only one bus, and they don’t let anybody out.
These roadside brothels on an isolated country road near the Czech and German border are just a small part of a world wide marketplace. Young and attractive women from eastern Europe and Asia forced to work in the capitols of Europe, and the Middle East. It's a vast global crime and if you thought that the United States was not involved, think again.
Marcy Foreman: San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, St. Paul, Minnesota, McAllen, Texas, it's, it's happened in, in almost every major community you, you can think of.
It happened in Detroit, and it happened to a woman we'll call Katya.
Katya: I was watching a lot of TV shows about human trafficking, and I could never believe that can happen to me. And when I get in this situation, I believe, and this can happen anytime.
2 years ago a 20-year-old university student signed up with a friend to study English abroad in a program that involved waitressing in Virginia Beach, but the girls would never reach Virginia. And they wouldn't be waitresses.
Bridgette Carr: They were met at the airport by Michail Aronov and Alex Maksimenko, the traffickers. And they were told that, you know what? Plans have changed. You're going to be going to Detroit. You need to get on this bus. So, they were nervous, but they thought, this is the plan, maybe my job is now in Detroit. They didn't even know where Detroit was. They didn't speak much of the language. When they got to Detroit, as Katya says, everything changed.
After a grueling 15 hour bus ride to Detroit, the men brought them to a hotel and asked them for their passports and money. Then they gave the girls the true and terrible terms of their employment.
Katya: They said, "You guys, because we brought you here, you should give us $12,000 each for everything, and then for paperwork, you're gonna give us $25,000," which for me was iYou guys got to work for us and give, give us money for three months."
Katya: They brought us clothes. It was strip clothes and shoes. And they say, you guys gonna work at the club named Cheetah. And you guys gonna work Monday to Saturday, double-shift, 2:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M.
For Katya, a year of terror and abuse was about to begin.
Katya: Every morning, we wake up at 12:00. We have one hour to put our makeup, to eat breakfast and be ready for them because they was waiting for us in the car outside of our apartment every single day. We would go to work, work 12 hours a day there. And, and the end of the shift, 2:00 in the morning, they was waiting for us outside of the club in the car. We will sit in the car and give the money back. They drove us back to our apartment. Sometimes they rape us there. Emotionally, physically, they could do anything with us. That was every single day in my life for one year.
The two students were kept under lock and key and constant surveillance. The traffickers maintained control with intimidation and a campaign of terror.
Katya: I was threatened every single day. When we go, go into work, in the car, he was telling us, you're gonna have to make 1,000 a day. If you're not making this money, we'll find a way when you can make this money. That was really scary too. He was telling us that he can sell us to any country, to any person any time.
Bridgette Carr: I know of women who have been bought for $300, $400, $500. Once I started looking into the issue and realizing that I wanted to be an advocate for victims of human trafficking, it seemed like I couldn't turn around without trafficking hitting me in the face
Katya: Almost every girl who I knew was sexually abused, raped. It wasn't in front of me, but it was another room where I could hear. I could actually see after the girl was talking about that.
Bridgette Carr: Alex and Michail had keys to the apartment. And they treated both the apartment and the individuals inside it as their own property. Alex would walk in and tell some of the women, let's go. It's time to get in the shower, which meant, he was going to rape them. And you couldn't say no. And even if you did say no, he would still force you to do it. He would force you whenever he wanted, for some women, multiple times per week, every week, every month, sometimes spanning over years of time.
Michael Rataj: Do I believe that some of them had sex against their will? I don't believe any of the girls had sex against their will.
Michael Rataj Is Alex Maksimenko's lawyer and he admits…
Michael Rataj: They were laundering money. They did take a lion's share of the money that the girls made in the bars. They did hide it from the government. They did bring the girls here without the proper immigration papers. And of course the girls were forced to work in these bars. But in terms of them being bought and sold for like a cow or pig, you know, or a chattel, ok, or the allegation that they were routinely sexually abused, just did not happen.
Katya: The girl who was living with me, she was, I saw her body was, (stammers) um, violence. You could see the, um, how do you call, scratch and bites. It was scary to look at it. I was thinking, I'm gonna be next if I will say something. I'm just gonna stay as quiet as I can, go through it, for a next day, for a better future.
Later Federal Agents would question Alex Maksimenko’s about the women he controlled. When asked about the rape accusations, Maksimenko’s said it was his right. After all, he claimed to be their boss.
For almost a year, 20-year-old Katya, a university student from Ukraine was forced to work strip clubs in Detroit by two men she thought were taking her to a waitressing job in America.
Alex Maksimenko’s and Michail Aronov imprisoned her and 15 other women in separate apartments around Detroit.
Katya: We couldn't kept any money in our apartment because the guys has keys.
They have, I believe, there was listen us in the apartment. And we could not hide nothing. They're say, if they find at least a dollar, it will be something bad happen to us.
The 12 hour shifts yielded up to $1000 a night but the women saw none of it.
Katya: They have a beautiful house. They have a Mercedes, brand new. They have Cadillacs. They have the best clothes, Versace. They have everything. They spend all our money for their well-being.
Michael Rataj: There was no armed guard outside their door. Maksimenko didn't sit inside the bar the entire 12 hours with a gun in his pocket.
Michael Rataj, Maksimenko’s attorney argues the girls could have fled anytime.
You know if you make any false moves, I'm gonna kill ya. There was none of that. They could have called the police any time.
Bridgette Carr, Katya's attorney scoffs at that notion. She says the girls knew that Maksimenko had recently firebombed the car of a girl's sister who had tried to help her escape.
Bridgette: Alex and Michail told her, if you try to leave, we'll kill your family back in Ukraine. These are women who are already taken from everything they knew, Thought they were going to something completely different. Thought they were gonna be waitresses in, in Virginia Beach for the summer and then go back to university in Ukraine. So, if, if these men could do that to them, why couldn't they kill.
Katya says the constant fear and humiliation led to depression and worse.
Katya: You know, 12 hours a day, at the same place, over and over again, the same people, it was terrible. It was the, the nastiest place I ever been. I felt miserable every single day. When I was going to shower, I was hating myself, I was even thinking about suicide many times because I didn't have a choice to get out. And one day, it was just enough for me. I was thinking I'm gonna do this. I will see how it's gonna go.
For Katya, the only alternative to suicide was a risky escape that would be months in the planning. It turns out that her girlfriend--had found an American man, a customer who had promised to help them.
Katya: In February we decided it's enough and were going to have to get out. We have a guy who we can trust, who we build a trust to him and he said he will brought us to immigration and they will help us there.,
That friend called the local FBI Agent, Immigration Agent Angus Lowe took the call.
Angus Lowe: I got a call from a concerned citizen. He'd met some girls working at a strip club called Cheetahs. He said you should check this club, these girls are treated like slaves in there.
On February 14, 2005, in the dark hours of early dawn, the girls made a run for it. The Michigan native was waiting for them in his car.
Katya: In the morning, 6:00, after work, we put all our clothes in the garages. And we’re gonna get out outside like we was with the garbage. So, we're thinking, if they will come up, that we go with the garbage. And we put everything in the car, close our door and we run away.
Lowe: This is the apartment where the first two women escaped and had initially come to ICE were held. They were held in this apt by Maksimenko and Aronov. As the girls decided that they were going to try to escape they began trying to collect some money and what they would do is hide the money in a cookie tin which they buried under a bush. Agents recovered the cookie tin shortly after the arrests and there was about $700 in the cookie tin which is about all they were able to save up in preparation for their escape.
They were free, but not of the terror that had haunted them for so long.
Katya: When I run away, the same day, I couldn't sleep. I was so scare. I call my mom. I say, I don't know what's gonna be. Sorry. I'm still very scared. Sorry.
Grace Kahng: What did your mother say when you called her?
Katya: When I run away she said the she very grateful that I did it. And when I saw her first time for two years she was so excited to see me alive.
Lowe: When we went into house on a search warrant. Very quickly when we got in we found a shoe box full of cash in the living room just sitting next to a coach in the basement in the rafters we found a small bag with $52,000 in it and there was keys to a bunch of safe deposit boxes. We found 62,000 in one safe deposit box, about 121,000 and then the one I got to open by chance happened to be the one with the most money in it; is was $255,000 in it.
When all was said and done over $500,000 in cash had been confiscated along with guns and special recording devices.
Angus: It's helpful for the trafficker to know what's going on maybe use the recordings to put one girl against another. It puts more fear in the girls because somehow these men know things they weren't privy to.
The federal case against Maksimenko was a slam dunk and his lawyer knew it. Rather than take his chances in front of a jury, Maksimenko plead guilty to, and was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison.
Michael Rataj: These girls were forced to work in strip clubs in Detroit, 6 days a week, 12 hour shifts, which is really a long time to be in high heels and all that, and they took all their money, hid their papers, isolated them from other people and basically tried to control as much of their lives as they could.
Attorney Rataj says despite his client’s treatment of the girls, in many ways he's a victim.
Michael Rataj: In a perverse way, he's a victim of his upbringing, his father, how things are in Ukraine. Certainly he's a victim. He didn't have a father who taught him how to throw a baseball. His father is a criminal, taught him how to be a criminal. So again, yeah, in a perverse way, Alex is a victim.
While Alex Maksimenko received 14 years and trafficker Michael Aronov received seven years for cooperating with federal agents. Katya says neither sentence is long enough.
Katya: I feel that when, (stammers) that she told, judge, that they will sit for that amount of time, I feel it wasn't enough for them. What they did to us, it was terrible.
Even today with both men behind bars, Katya lives in fear. Her mother still lives in Ukraine and the old rules still apply.
Katya: Alex’s father, he knows my mom. He knows where she lives. And he visited a couple of times after I ran away. He threatened her. He used very aggressive words. He said, if I will not stop talking, that will blood come out from me.
Katya is one of the few women with the courage to come forward. She testified in congress last month.
Katya: And every day I'm living, I'm scared that something can happen.
Bridgette Carr: People will often talk about, there's been a bust and a number of prostitutes have been found. Well, I wish our language could change because pro- saying that someone is a prostitute denotes a choice. These women, many women are actually prostituted.
Marcy Forman oversees 305 special agents tasked with cracking criminals who traffick women.
Often times people think that crime only happens in the big city. It doesn't, it happens throughout small communities, medium sized communities and large communities. We're seeing such, such horrific crimes involving sex trafficking it's all about the money. These organized criminals don't think of these people as human beings. They think of them as dollars and cents.
You'll see she's absolutely right. MSNBC goes undercover in search of sex slaves in America
Look closely along the streets and highways of major American cities, and the trained eye can spot the tell-tale signs of sex for sale. While eager patrons may welcome a growth in secret brothels that advertise new girls every week, law enforcement sees a growing menace, where foreign nationals are forced into modern-day sexual slavery.
Maritza Conde-Vasquez, FBI Agent: You see a pretty girl, heavy makeup, sexy dress, and you automatically think she's enjoying what she's doing.
FBI agent Maritza Conde-Vasquez says the men who frequent these secret brothels should understand the girls they buy work under duress.
Conde-Vasquez: The truth is when you are told you're going to be here working as a prostitute, and if you don't do that they're going to kill your family, your children, your siblings, or they going to beat you up.They're going to kill you. That's enough to keeping you there. You don't have to be in chains, because the chains in this case are psychological, not physical.
In just 2 years, the Houston field office of the FBI has interviewed over 100 women who say they were virtual prisoners. Prisoners forced to sell their bodies for cash, 14 hours a day, 6 days a week.
Conde-Vasquez: They were usually young, as young as 14 years old.
Agent Conde-Vasquez, who heads the trafficking task force, says hundreds of young women are held here in these seemingly harmless looking bars and restaurants.
Conde-Vasquez: Cantinas do look very normal from the outside. And if you drive by one of them, you would not think more than, oh, what a busy business.
Carla Sanchez: He raped me. I didn't know him.
20 year old Carla Sanchez says instead of the restaurant job she was promised the man who brought her here from El Salvador beat and raped her within hours of her arrival in Houston.
Carla: He said, I'm gonna introduce you to some guys and you're going to drink with them because every drink you have goes toward paying off your trip here.
Sanchez says that Victor's Cantina, like dozens of other cantinas work like this. If a client bought a beer, it cost him 3 dollars. If the client wanted a girl, he had to pay 13 dollars for her beer. In the time it took that girl to drink that beer, he was allowed to touch her anywhere on her body.
Lucia Hernandez: He took me over to one of the clients who was a good friend of his. He said, look, fresh meat from El Salvador.
Just a few weeks after, single mother Lucia Hernandez said goodbye to her toddlers, Hernandez found herself in a cantina, surrounded by strange men.
Lucia: He grabbed my hand and swung me around. He put me between the man's legs. And he said, here, you can do whatever you want with her. The man grabbed me and put his hands on me. And I said, let go of me! He said, Jimina can force the women if they don't want it. But not me, I said.
Hernandez had left her successful bakery business in El Salvador, for what she thought was a well paying factory job. Instead like Carla and 20 other women, she found herself trapped in a squalid cantina. The devoted mother, who never drank alcohol and lived a respectful life, pleaded with her captor.
Lucia: I said, Walter, I don't like this work. I'm leaving; I'll pay you some other way. But I will pay you. He said, don't forget, you have 2 months to pay me back. $6500. If you don't pay me back in 2 or 3 months it'll be $9000. He said, you can't leave here. I said, why, if I'm still going to pay you with what I owe. He said, just see what happens if you try to leave. I'll go after your family.
Agent Conde-Vasquez says, traffickers view women as human ATMs. If the $13 beers aren't enough, they offer patrons access to private rooms in the back of the cantina.
Conde-Vasquez: That's how the scheme worked. $65 for 50 minutes of sex, several times a night per girl. Some of them even have quotas to comply with. One of the girls was told you need to make a thousand dollars a night. Or if you don't, we're going to beat you up. You're going to be in trouble. And if you do the math, $65 per 20, 30 clients a night, that's a lot of money.
Lucia: Every time I started work I had to drink 5 or 6 beers. So that I wouldn't feel like I existed. So that I could escape.
Every month the girls were given birth control injections. If the girls became pregnant, they were forced to have an abortion. Just how brutal were the traffickers? The FBI says a 16 year old girl who arrived from El Salvador, 5 months pregnant, was forced to have an abortion. She took this picture to remember her child.
Jose Benitez: This girl could be my sister.
Jose Benitez provides services for victims of human trafficking and forced labor in Houston. He says ruthless traffickers have no qualms exploiting children recruited outside their high schools.
Jose: One day I saw one girl. She's 15 years old. And I asked her how many men she has had in her life. She told me, more than 200, and believe me, she reminded me of my daughter. And this is- (crying), I don't want to remember this story because it makes me cry. Because I saw her body, you know? I was in the hospital when I saw her like this; very bad.
For the 100 women and young girls held in the Mondragon cantinas freedom came in the form of a late night raid, when the Harris County task force stormed the cantina.
Lucia: Immigration and the FBI raided us. They surrounded the whole cantina. I wanted to escape through the back door. When I ran there was a helicopter shining a light down on us. I turned around and they told me if I ran they would shoot me so I stopped. They brought us back inside. One of the agents hit me and pushed me and I fell on the carpet. He treated us like animals.
Fear and suspicion of law enforcement kept both women from initially disclosing their stories. So they were kept in jail for 6 months until agents convinced them to cooperate and testify against their trafficker.
Today, nearly a year after their traffickers were convicted, the women's visas are about to expire. And they fear the long arm of Central American organized crime, where it costs less than $100 to kill someone.
Lucia: They could kill me for my statement and for telling the truth. I'm afraid for my children, my mother and for me.
Meanwhile, traffickers like Geraldo Salazar have alluded the authorities. The FBI believes he is traveling between Mexico and Houston and they have issued a $5000 for information leading to his arrest.
Agent Conde-Vasquez says the economic windfall that each women represents in a country hungry for cheap sex will only increase the likelihood of new victims every day.
Vasquez: How profitable is the business of human trafficking? When you have a kilo of cocaine and you’re going to sell it, once that kilo of cocaine is gone, you don't have anything. When you have a human being, you have a reusable resource. These human beings can be used over and over and over again, on a daily basis, maybe for years.
MSNBC wanted to get a firsthand look at the Houston cantinas that law enforcement described as modern day prisons for hundreds of young women.
FBI agents warned that while the cantinas look like regular restaurants or night clubs, traffickers guard their profit-making houses carefully and not just anyone is allowed access.
As day turned into night, we found a bustling empire with parking attendants who directed traffic and helped organize the arrangement of vehicles.
There were even taco stands outside, serving midnight snacks to cantina customers.
We caught occasional glimpses of prostituted women outside the clubs.
Along with elaborate security cameras, most of the cantinas are well guarded with gun toting security men manning the entrances and exits of the bars.
We decided to try go in with our hidden cameras to document what the girls and the FBI described as a modern day slave market.
During the day, this building is a bustling flea market, but at night, men can buy the company of women and young girls.
In the dark interior, our cameras captured this image of a cantina worker dancing with a client.
And for $10 a beer, our guides were able to buy the company of this young girl.
Ben: It's very, very scary.
On the third night of our surveillance we got to experience firsthand the threat and severity with which traffickers guard their profits. Men spotted our cameras and we were followed for several blocks before losing the car.
Ben: Our guide was kind of nervous and he knew the area and knew that we had cause for concern.
Guide: You're gonna see only security now.
Ben: We had one incident where someone approached the car with a gun. And I think they had just seen us around and they had driven past us a few times, and they had had some communication, either via cell phones or radios or whatever, with some of the other cantinas at this one major intersection in downtown Houston.
The organized threat we felt driving in the neighborhood gave us a deeper understanding why the women trapped in cantinas couldn't run away.
Cantina Girl: He told me that if I go out the front door there are the cantina cameras. If I go out the side door, the other women who work there will tell me everything about you. That's what he told me so I wouldn't do anything.
It became clear to us that the cantina owners will do anything to protect their operation.
Ben: We were driving past this cantina and the look-out ran up to the car with a gun and we pulled out.
Guide: Let's go.
Ben: Enough time for him to pull out and sort of do one of those at the car (points his had in sideways gun shape at the camera).
Cholanda: You have to do it because you need money.
30 year old Cholanda says that trafficked girls in Houston are everywhere not just in cantinas.
And she should know because she was trafficked from Thailand to Philadelphia before ending up at this massage parlor in Houston. Cholanda says everyone knows that massage parlors are houses of prostitution.
Cholanda: When they come, they pay money. And then take a shower, sauna, go to massage and go to have sex and let him go; 45 minute.
This petite Thai woman says instead of the American dream she was promised she ended up working for 12 years, forced to have sex with hundreds of strange men to pay off an impossible debt.
Cholanda: You come to work restaurant, small money. You owe me $55,000.
How can you finish paying in 6 months, 7 months $55,000 U.S., What can you do? They ask you. "I don't know. What do you take the other girls to do?" They take you to work spa massage. It's really good money. A day, you can get $1000, $2000 a day. $500, $1000, $1500 a day.
Cholanda: No, you no choice. You have to do. You have to do it. You cannot have choice. "Oh, I need that. I need this." No. You have to do what the boss tells you.
Massage parlors like these don't even bother hiding the fact that sex is for sale. Websites offer detailed reviews of women and the sex acts they offer so men can know what to expect.
Like a Zagat’s guide to restaurants or a consumer report guide to cars, men can go online and review the size of a particular girl's breasts, how she is shaved, and whether or not she will give a patron the full "girl friend experience" which means sex without condoms.
MSNBC decided to take hidden cameras into the massage parlor where Cholanda says she used to work. We wanted to find out how exactly they operated.
Masseuse: Hi. Have you been here before?
Petr: No, I haven't.
Masseuse: Ok. It's $60.
Petr: How much?
Masseuse: $60, and then you can tip.
Petr: Yeah, absolutely.
Masseuse: Ok. Are you ready to come in?
Just as Cholanda described, clients must immediately give the house $60 in cash which our cameraman did.
But when the cameraman asked about details, the woman became very tight lipped. Law enforcement warned us that the women are forbidden from verbalizing their services and often use hand gestures or non verbal cues to communicate sex acts.
Petr: What does $60 include?
Masseuse: Have you been to this kind of place?
Petr: Yes, so that's why I wanna find out how much is everything.
Masseuse: Shower and then body massage.
Petr: Uh huh. And then anything after that? Do you have a full service? Nothing? So $60 is just the massage?
Masseuse: Just massage.
Petr: Are there any other services I can get?
Law enforcement warned us that the women are forbidden from verbalizing their services, and often use hand gestures or non-verbal cues to communicate sex acts..
Petr: Oh, you can't talk about it.
Masseuse: No. I can't.
Petr: Oh, I'm sorry. So, is it after the shower then we'll discuss?
Petr: Okay, cool.
NBC News policy prohibited us from going any further so our cameraman left the parlor without getting serviced.
Experts say the explosion of massage parlors illustrates the public's acceptance of institutionalized prostitution.
Judith Momoh: We've become so complacent, we just sit there and say, well it's not in my back yard. Just like, you know, it doesn't affect me. But if you think it doesn't, think again.
Expert Judith Momoh says every American should be alarmed about the public health consequences that comes with the explosion of cheap sex to go offered at these massage parlors and secret brothels.
Momoh: They have sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea, syphilis, one person takes it and then passes it on to the other person and by the time you look at it, you have 15, 20 or even 100 people infected from this one little lady who was trafficked. And they are right in your neighborhood.
Gavin Newsom, Mayor of San Francisco: These are slaves. In this day and age, slavery exists in cities like San Francisco. But it's the most egregious kind of slavery, its sex slaves.
Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco takes the issue of slavery in his city very personally.
Newsom: If it weren't so real, cause I've seen it, I mean I've seen it first hand, I would not believe it. And most people drive by, they don't believe this stuff. They say, ah, maybe it happens a little bit, you're exaggerating. Give me a break, exaggerate. Every single on of these massage establishments, almost every single one, this is happening in all of them.
From the upscale strip clubs in urban Detroit to the dingy back rooms of cantinas in Houston to the glittering streets long considered the crowned jewel of American cities, young foreign women and girls say they have been forced into an unbearable life of slavery.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the results of a nine month investigation into an illegal sex trafficking ring operating in the Bay Area.
Kevin Ryan U.S. Attorney: Approximately 100 women were recovered.
They say they confiscated millions of dollars in cash from inside the businesses, as well as 3 ATM machines.
Gavin Newsom, Mayor of San Francisco: That was a big wake up call. Most came in thinking that they were gonna have a new life, a new beginning, only to find themselves with quote, unquote debt, and travel expenses. They're forced to have sex with 12, 15 people every single day
In 2005, after local businessmen were arrested for enslaving over 100 Korean women in downtown San Francisco, Mayor Newsom ordered city raids on massage parlors, raids Newsom attended.
Newsom: I walked in one day, kid you not, large guy, 5:30, downtown financial district in San Francisco, in an office building. You would never know what was going on there.
Walked in, right there, a young girl is throwing off this guy as we raided the place, and this guy has a wedding ring on. This is real. It's a disgrace. The idea it's happening in San Francisco, is equally disgraceful. And I'm just humiliated as a guy who lives here, not just its mayor.
But federal prosecution of trafficking takes years so the Mayor and his staff chose not to wait.
Julian Potter: Once we knew that those sites, those particular establishments with known addresses, were trafficking and not just prostitution or some sort of sex industry. The mayor said "Let's look at everything we have available and we can close them down under the city's laws.
Dr. Johnson Ojo: Today's inspections will involve going to four establishments.
This unlikely odd couple, Dr. Johnson Ojo, a Nigerian doctor and San Francisco Health Inspector Ed Walsh, form the backbone of the mayor's effort against sex trafficking.
For the last three years, they have led a team of city officials on a full frontal assault on massage parlors by enforcing new health dept laws designed to root out women who are forced to live on the premises and provide sex to pay off trafficking debt.
The message is loud and clear, San Francisco will not tolerate slavery.
Ed Walsh: We're gonna have the fire department, fire inspector, the building inspector and the city planner. We're gonna have a combination of the two police officers from the San Francisco vice squad which will provide us security to get in the facility.
The inspectors enter the massage parlor.
Dr. Ojo: Is the manager here? Who is in charge today?
Manager: It's me.
Walsh: Did Johnson see this?
Within minutes Inspector Walsh makes discoveries; a false wall and a hidden room with four foot ceilings.
Walsh: This light must come on somehow. It's a living quarters. You ok Johnson?
Grace Kahng: So Johnson, what is this?
Dr. Ojo: This is an illegal living quarters, unapproved room.
Kahng: How many people do you think live back here?
Dr. Ojo: I would say about maybe four or five. That's another bed
Dr. Ojo: Sofa down over there.
Dr. Ojo: You also observe personal belongings like excessive shoes and suitcases and excessive makeup. Those are indicative that the individuals are living there.
Dr. Ojo: The Health Department license. Do you have a permit?
Dr. Ojo: From the Health Department.
Dr. Ojo discovers some of the women don't have the permit that the city now requires to provide massage. And they want answers about that hidden room.
Off camera male voice: Do you live here?
Girl: I live in Sunset.
Kahng: Who is sleeping in the back?
Male voice: By the washing machines.
Young woman: Who is sleeping in the back; back of the bed?
Male voice: Yeah, back behind the washing machines there are some beds there.
Young woman: We never go to the back We never go to the backside because we only work here and work the upstairs, that's all. We never work in the backside.
Male voice: Where the machines are, the laundry machines.
Young woman: Yeah, the laundry machines, we only go to the laundry machines. We never know the backside of the beds.
Male voice: So who goes in there?
Young woman: just the boss, the boss goes in there.
Male voice: Does the boss live here?
Young woman: I don't think so but I don't know, because the boss has a house in Richmond
Kahng: So you don't sleep back there?
Young woman: (laughing) No, I don't sleep there.
Kahng: But there are beds with people's stuff there.
Young woman: Maybe it's just for the rest or for take a nap.
Walsh: If there're beds anywhere on the premises where the women may be forced to stay there overnight
Health inspector Walsh says hidden rooms with beds have been discovered in numerous massage parlors along with other telltale signs that indicate they harbor trafficked women.
Walsh: If there's a lot of food in the refrigerator, you know, they're for food, for like, 10, 15 people over say, a month's period of time. There are a lot of signs, a lot of lingerie, uh, thongs, uh g-strings.
After 25 years on the job, massage parlor owners suspected of using trafficked girls have a tough job sweet talking inspector Ed Walsh.
Walsh: Hi, health department; massage?
Owner: No. No!
Walsh: Let's take a look. How come you have the sign still?
Time and time again, Walsh encounters the pain and suffering of trafficked women firsthand and has little patience for those who prey on the vulnerable.
Walsh: This is a massage establishment operating without a health permit. Two months ago we closed it down and now they've reopened.
Kahng: But she says they're not.
Ed Walsh: Well she has all the signs. They have two massage tables, they have, the rooms are set up with oil and Kleenex, and cleaning towels to dry their hands.
Dr. Ojo: If next time he comes back and we discover that you still have the tables and your sign, we're going to refer the case to the city attorney's office.
Walsh: It's obvious that they're doing massage. They're also on the Internet too as having clients go here within the last two weeks one of the johns went on there and they said that they had a good time at this location.
Kahng: So where are the girls?
Walsh: That's a good question. Not here today.
The women freed in the federal raid testified that they never left the massage parlors. Double locked gates and elaborate security camera monitoring their every move and conversation. Walsh says there's no reason a legitimate massage establishment needs that kind of security.
Walsh: You're gonna see these facilities that are built like Fort Knox. You have double iron gates. You have to be buzzed in. And before they buzz you, they've already seen you from the outside because there's cameras located outside the entrance. And the camera, usually, can cover the whole block. There are cameras throughout the facility. There’s usually a camera at the point of sale, where the John goes and pays his $60. There will be cameras up and down the hallway. There will be cameras at the back door.
The last stop for the task force is a parlor on the brink of being shut down for repeatedly violating city laws, and where the FBI recently searched for a woman who called claiming she was being held captive.
Ed: Hello. Come on out, Health Department. Have a seat.
Officer: Go outside and have a seat. Your masseuse will be right back.
Dr. Ojo: Who is the manager?
A new city law requires massage therapists to keep their body covered from the neck up.
When the women see police they immediately run to don lab coats to avoid being cited.
Walsh: When I first went in there, there were plenty of girls with Johns. There's at least three. And we got them all out of the rooms and they were scantily clothed. They had very little on, and they weren't professional masseuses. It was obvious.
Dr. Ojo: All seven women were dressed in inappropriate attire. The attire was very provocative. High heeled shoes, they were showing a lot of their assets, so to speak.
On this visit inspectors find that the owners have removed the 10 beds they found in a secret crawl space on their last inspection.
Walsh: This is where they were sleeping previously.
Dr. Ojo: It's a lot of storage, for goodness sake.
The task force says, it's not much but at least it's one small signal that while they can't completely eradicate businesses from trafficking women, they are having some kind of impact.
Just blocks away from some of the most exclusive retail stores in downtown San Francisco, inspectors wait for the team to assemble before returning for a third surprise inspection of CEO Health Club, which brazenly advertises its sexual services online.
Inspector Ed Walsh: The Internet is saying that one of the John's went on there and they said that they had a good time at this location.
Inspectors must be careful not to tip off the business, so officers hang back around the corner while their decoy gains access by posing as a john.
Police: The whole idea is once Joe gets up there, he's going to come out the back stairs.
Remember, like most of the previous businesses, an elaborate network of hidden cameras survey the streets.
Walsh: The owner has put a camera right above the point of sale.
Officers say, it's a way for owners to monitor the women who work for them and warn them about police.
Walsh: They're trying to get in, let's go, let's go.
When the decoy gets buzzed in, he holds the door and investigators move in.
Dr. Ojo: Where are we at?
Walsh: 130 Bush, CEO Health Club.
Dr. Ojo and Inspector Walsh say that CEO health club, with its gold mirrored elevator and high priced real estate, is one of the city's most profitable parlors.
Walsh: It’s for CEOs. Hi, can you come out please? Thank you.
Inside the club, it's pandemonium as girls hustle into the halls and shocked clients hide in their rooms.
Walsh: You have a masseuse in here?
Police bang on the doors notifying the johns that they have been caught in a city Health Inspection.
Walsh: How many girls you got here tonight?
The manager tries to stall Ed from entering one of the rooms. Remember, just months ago, CEO was fined for having six women wearing lingerie and clear plastic heels and for employing an unlicensed masseuse.
Walsh: She was crying because she was, she didn't want to be there; her father was sick. She was from Korea and the only reason she's here is because her father's sick, and she's trying to make money, and that she doesn't want to do this. My lot in life was to be a, be a piano teacher.
That woman-who cried when investigators interviewed her, has since disappeared.
Officers catch five girls and three johns. There are six rooms with tables that don't have the normal accoutrements of a legitimate massage.
Walsh: You call this a massage establishment?
The girls quickly throw on their white lab coats to hide skimpy attire. They wait nervously while officers inspect the premises. Confuse clients make quick exits or hide in the hallways.
Walsh says it's a game of cat and mouse, where everyone understands that sex is for sale. He grills a girl he found half naked, who the owner claims was just there for an interview
Walsh: Do you have a massage diploma?
Girl: No. First day, go to Chinese.
Walsh: Okay, if you want to work here, you have to go to massage school. Here's a citation to a hearing. You cannot do massage without a permit. Okay?
Walsh: She was putting her close on when I walked in. You know that employee lounge with all the girls? I stuck my head in there and she was putting on her shirt. The lady that was in there claimed that she was there for an interview. And I asked the owner is that normally how you interview people, without their clothes on? And she said no.
The owners barely hide the notion of sex for sale. This sign, displayed right above the reception area, warns customers about mixing drugs and alcohol with sex.
Officer: How many cameras do you have?
Owner: Here four, and here four.
Officer: So eight cameras?
Business is booming as clients anxiously wait to get in but the owner hesitates to let them in.
Owner: Can you come back later? I have inspection here.
This client is undeterred and insists on coming up. It's only when he sees the police officers that he makes a hasty exit.
As he goes down, another client comes up.
John: I have a 7:30 appointment.
He pushes past officers until he finally realizes the gravity of the situation.
John: Yeah. Okay.
Officers admit that these surprise inspections won't stop women from being forced into prostitution, but at least it keeps owners on their toes.
Walsh: I cannot change this.
Owner: So this time, $5000.
Walsh: That's right.
Walsh: You can talk to the hearing officer. Give him your side of the story, but I walked in and I saw her. She was putting her shirt on.
Owner tries to explain (grabs her jacket to show girl was just putting her coat on).
Walsh: I told you, don't have anybody here without permits. I told you that.
Owner: I always listen.
Walsh: I keep telling you that for 2 years. I've been telling you that for 2 years. And then I come here and you've got girls without permits. I can't show any sympathy for that. Okay, sign here please.
Owner: I don't like that.
Walsh: Well, bring the tape to the hearing and let the judge look at the tape. That's all I can say.
Mayor Gavin Newsom: This is happening because men are engaging in this illegal activity and they need to be held accountable.
Norma Hotaling: We need to start thinking in a very different way about who we see and who we blame.
Norma Hotaling, the founder of an international organization to help women forced into prostitution, says the only way to make a real dent in stopping what she sees as a global epidemic is to attack the demand. The men who spend thousands on sex to go.
Hotaling: They could really stop. They could understand that the people that they are buying are there not of their own free will. And that behind the smile that they pay for is an incredible amount of pain and fear and terror.
Hotaling: Ok, good afternoon.
Every month for the past 12 years you'll find Norma Hotaling lecturing 1st time offenders. Johns arrested by police in sting operations for soliciting prostitutes.
Hotaling: Traffickers will do whatever they need to do in order to ensnare a girl.
Hotaling pulls no punches and educates the johns on the cold cruel reality of the women and young girls they buy online, on the streets, or in massage parlors. 7000 men have gone through her unique program.
Hotaling: They don't think about the fact that they can't tell if a woman is trafficked. They can't even tell if the person that they're having sex with is a kid.
Hotaling says research shows her program has seriously reduced recidivism, keeping men from reoffending. This john was so moved by the program and the stories of trafficked women he agreed to be interviewed.
John: I've heard of it, but I never really paid attention to it, because it didn't apply to me, I was being selfish I wasn't thinking of them. It really tears me up inside that could be my daughter, my kids.