Tampa asking attorneys to take down illegal massage parlors

State:: Massage parlors tied to human trafficking

TAMPA - The signs glow all day long and late into the night advertising spa or Asian massage.  Most stare at you from strip malls and office buildings in plain sight.

Local and state law enforcement say massage parlors are tied to human trafficking -- that not only are women coerced into working there, they're forced to live on site too.

"It's huge.  It's huge.  It's kind of an underground element in a lot of communities where it's hard to know how big the problem really is," said Katherine O'Donniley.  O'Donniley was employed by Holland and Knight in Tampa but is launching her own private practice.

That's why the City of Tampa is tasking a group of attorneys including O'Donniley to figure out how to put massage parlors, selling sex, out of business.

"We're trying to come at it from another angle.  These women are often victims and so we want to look at a different approach, targeting the business operation itself," she said.

So O'Donniley says targeting the business owners may be the answer.  She explained keeping a tighter grip on operating hours may be key, forcing employees to go home at night, because many are open 24-hours a day, 7-days a week.

In September, the state stripped licenses from more than 80 massage therapists. Florida's Governor says they are investigating hundreds more, some of them in the Tampa Bay Area.

"It's much more difficult to investigate than to try and prevent through regulation on the front end," said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor.

This type of regulation has helped Tampa Police stifle pop-up pill mills, and illegal massage parlors seem to be next on the list.

"Going after the prostitution charge is quite challenging.  What I've been told is the women will not speak," said O'Donniley.

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