Bellingham cops link spa to prostitution, human trafficking

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- A seven-month investigation into an illegal massage business by Bellingham police and other agencies has culminated in the arrest of two people for promoting prostitution and leading organized crime.

Search warrants were served Wednesday at the Bellingham Foot Spa at 177 Telegraph Road and at a home nearby where police believe suspected trafficking victims lived.

Police say its investigation shows the business at any given time employed five women who often worked seven days a day for 12 to 13 hours a day.

A police spokesman said officers contacted four employees and offered them help. Police are treating the women as victims, the spokesman said.

Police say that illegal massage business are sometimes disguised as legal massage businesses or spas. Police say such illegal businesses can involve human trafficking, prostitution and money laundering.

Victims are recruited with a promise of wages and a job, police said.

"They arrive to find themselves being controlled by debt, threats, and psychological manipulation. This along with cultural and language barriers and limited knowledge of the laws in this country can create a sense of fear which prevents them from seeking help. They feel they have nowhere else to go," police said in a statement.

"A very difficult aspect of these investigations is that most of the time, the women, or men, do not see themselves as victims of human trafficking. These exploited people are broken down over time to accept this way of living. Lack of self-identification does not mean they have not been trafficked. The women involved in this situation will need long term assistance from support services to help them recover. Investigators are working with non-governmental advocacy groups to help them escape the victimization."

In addition to the Bellingham police, the investigation also involved the Whatcom County Prosecutor's Office, Homeland Security Investigations, FBI and Ferndale Police Department.

Police say tips from the public about prostitution and human trafficking prompted the investigation.

Police ask that if you can help investigators, call at 360-778-8678.

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