YBOR CITY, Fla. — The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office arrested seven people Wednesday in connection with a prostitution ring spanning across Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
The sheriff’s office called their investigation “Operation Shared Hope,” which began in September 2020 when they say they received a tip about illegal activity occurring at Simply Massage in Lutz.
Sheriff Chad Chronister also says they noticed the name of the massage parlor coming up on adult forums.
That’s all part of what led to the start of the investigation, where they found the leaders of the prostitution ring were operating out of 12 massage parlors, 4 in Hillsborough County, and 8 in Pinellas County.
On Wednesday, detectives with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spent the day serving search warrants on all 12 massage parlors, as well as the home and a storage unit connected to the two people who Sheriff Chronister says, were the owners of the massage parlors and the leaders in the prostitution ring.
“Our detectives conducted surveillance and found it highly unusual that the massage parlor only had male customers,” said Sheriff Chronister.
Detectives arrested James Robert Smith and his wife Nan Chen Smith. They also arrested two of their massage parlor managers and three employees.
“This multi-faceted criminal ring operated like this, the customer, or John, would enter the establishment and speak to a manager or madam, who would negotiate the sexual acts they wanted to perform, and then hand-selected the woman who would perform the act as if they were a personal shopper,” said Sheriff Chronister.
Sheriff Chronister says the Smiths recruited women from around the country, and some from outside the country, operating a business that brought in hundreds of dollars a day to the individuals involved in the ring, then forced the women they exploited to work for tips.
“To increase profits in many cases, these madams and the women involved would sleep at the parlors to maximize their availability,” said Sheriff Chronister.
The sheriff says those arrested attempted to conceal profits by laundering more than a million dollars. During the search warrants, detectives seized more than $750,000 between cash and vehicles.
“If not stopped by Operation Hope, the Smiths' criminal organization had immediate plans to expand with the addition of two more massage parlors here in the Tampa Bay area,” said Sheriff Chronister.
Detectives are still working to interview the women found working in the parlors, and the sheriff says they’re working to get them the help they need to rescue them from this cycle.
The sheriff said they do not currently know how many victims there are in this case, and they do not know how long this has gone on, as their investigation is ongoing.
He added the Florida Department of Health is now conducting their investigation which will likely result in additional charges.
Anti-human trafficking advocates say a bust like this provides an opportunity to remind people of the realities of human trafficking.
"We have this idea that it's a big Hollywood production and it happens overseas and kids and women are being abducted. But the reality is most survivors of trafficking know the person who was trafficking them," said John Long, the Executive Director of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking.
And they say contrary to the belief of some, traffickers and victims can be anyone.
"It can be a husband trafficking their wife, it can be a boyfriend trafficking their girlfriend or vice versa. Males can be trafficked, absolutely. It doesn't matter what demographic you're in, how much money you make, where you live, it can literally happen to anyone," said Debra Keim, the Residential Coordinator for Selah Freedom.
But what about the signs of human trafficking?
Well, advocates say you should look out for:
- Someone that always has a chaperone who speaks for them
- Someone who doesn't seem to know what state they're in or who’s unfamiliar with the neighborhood
- Someone who isn't allowed to carry cash or an ID
- Someone dressed inappropriately for the weather or season
- Someone whose answers seem really scripted when you're speaking to them
"We don't ask people to become investigators or get in between a trafficker or a survivor for your safety and the survivor's safety," said Long.
They say what you should do is call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.